RICE-TURNER BILL REQUIRING BOARD APPROVAL OF SCHOOL CLOSURES IN STATE-CONTROLLED DISTRICTS CLEARS SENATE

Prompted By Proposal In Newark To Reorganize District, Shuttering Some Schools

 TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Ronald L. Rice and Senator Shirley K. Turner that would require board approval of school closures in districts that are under state control – the same process utilized in public school districts – was approved today by the full Senate. The bill would also include other stipulations for school closures, including ensuring that they would not result in the segregation of students based on certain factors.

The bill was prompted by a proposal in the Newark Public Schools to reorganize the district including shuttering some schools. Newark is currently under state control and the district superintendent is state-appointed and state-approved. The local school district has an Advisory Board.

“The Newark school reorganization plan has created a lot of angst and frustration in the community, particularly concerning the neighborhood schools that are slated for closure. In addition, far too many unanswered questions about the proposal remain,” said Senator Rice (D-Essex). “This is a major undertaking that will affect the lives of the children and parents throughout our city. The representatives of the community, who serve on the school board, should be involved in the decision-making. Ultimately, the school buildings are assets that belong to the taxpayers and they deserve the process to be conducted in full public view. This is an important piece of legislation that will ensure that major decisions regarding educational institutions throughout New Jersey are made in the open with parental and community involvement, and not behind closed doors.”

“The state cannot ask parents in the community to get more involved in our schools and the decisions that affect their children, and then shut them out of the decisions which would have the most substantial impact on their daily lives,” said Senator Turner (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “Our educational institutions are the center of our communities. Regardless of the wealth of a town or city, any decision to close a school should be done with the input of parents and all of the local stakeholders that will be affected. I am troubled by what is occurring in Newark. Quite frankly, it is Newark today and could be another school district tomorrow. We have to be sure that a uniform policy is on the books that provides for transparency and inclusion, so that all of our residents are involved in the process.”

The bill (S-966) would require that, for school closure plans submitted on or after January 1, 2014, state district superintendents obtain the approval of the local board of education prior to submitting a school closure plan to the state. Currently, while the approval of the school district board of education is necessary prior to closing a school in the majority of school districts, school closures in districts under State control – Newark, Jersey City, Camden and Paterson – can be achieved without the approval of the local board of education.

A local board of education or district superintendent would be required to obtain approval from the Commissioner of Education prior to implementing a school closure.  The bill would also stipulate that an application for approval of a school closure must include assurances that the proposed closure:

  •  is consistent with the district’s approved long range facilities plan because there is either sufficient capacity in the remaining school buildings to house the district’s students for the succeeding five years, or a feasibility study has demonstrated that the benefits of constructing a new school building are greater than the benefits of rehabilitating any school building that is proposed to be closed, and does not increase the number of students in temporary facilities in the district’s remaining schools;
  • would not lead to an increased use of temporary facilities;

 

  • would not contribute to unlawful segregation of student populations on the basis of race or national origin, socioeconomic status, disability status, or English language proficiency; and

 

  • would not cause unreasonably burdensome transportation requirements for students.

The stipulations are similar to those currently required under State Board of Education regulations which do not consider segregation by socio-economic status, disability status, or English language proficiency as factors that would result in rejection of the request to close a school.

Under the bill, a “school closure” would mean the termination of the use of a school building, other than a temporary facility, that necessitates the reassignment of current and future students to the remaining school buildings of the school district or to a newly-constructed school building.

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 21-15. It next heads to the General Assembly for consideration.