By Ron Leir
EAST NEWARK –
East Newark public school children have now officially begun their climb up a long ladder that could lead them to taking high school classes in Kearny.
That happened March 24 when the Kearny Board of Education voted 6-0 “… that, contingent upon the severing of the sending-receiving relationship between East Newark and the Harrison Public School District, the Board is ready, willing and able to receive and educate the students from East Newark in grades 9 through 12 at the Kearny High School.”
East Newark Mayor Joseph Smith characterized the KBOE’s action as “the first favorable step” along the path to possible separation from Harrison that would end a century-plus-old tradition.
“My understanding is that if we couldn’t overcome this hurdle, we couldn’t go any farther,” Smith said. “There’d been no sense spending any money [to continue the separation process] until we had that step completed.”
East Newark Superintendent/ Principal William Shlala added: “For [the separation process] to go forward, we had to have a place to land,” meaning Kearny High.
Smith said that the borough school district could realize a savings of an estimated $400,000 by taking advantage of a cheaper tuition rate charged by Kearny. Since the entire borough school budget is about $5.4 million, that would be a significant savings, Smith said.
Because the borough’s total property evaluation got a bump this year when the new St. George apartment building went on the tax rolls, borough residents will benefit by seeing their school taxes drop for the balance of 2014. Borough School Business Administrator Tom Havlusch anticipates that the owner of a “average” house assessed at $75,000 will pay $22 less in school taxes.
Part of the budget includes tuition payments to Harrison’s school district, projected at $2.08 million as the cost of educating 124 East Newark residents, at a rate of $16,300 per student, according to Havlusch.
Some history on the high school tuition dilemma: In December 2013, the East Newark school board voted to retain the Morristown law firm Prozio, Bromberg & Newman for a maximum of $44,000 to undertake a staterequired feasibility study designed to make a case for the borough’s graduating eighth-graders to attend Kearny High.
But, according to Shlala, the lawyers advised the borough’s school board that before they proceeded with the work at hand, the board needed to get the consent of the Kearny school trustees to agree to assume the responsibility of a “receiving” district.
Now that that objective has been accomplished, with one more legal formality in the works, the lawyers can begin their work in earnest, Shlala said.
The East Newark Board of Education voted March 31 to authorize shifting its eighth-graders, from Harrison to Kearny, if it can successfully make its case with the Commissioner of Education.
East Newark’s rationale for making the switch, as Kearny’s Acting Superintendent of Schools Patricia Blood explained to her board and the public on March 25, is economics.
Blood said that the borough’s request was made known late last year to the then-Kearny Superintendent Frank Ferraro. “They said there has been an application to sever ties with Harrison because of a large increase in the cost per pupil,” Blood said.
Then, in January, at which point Blood had replaced Ferraro after he was placed on paid leave, Shlala followed up and “asked if our Board of Education had taken any action [and] asked us to bring it up,” Blood said. But Blood hastened to note that, “Just because Kearny agrees doesn’t mean they’ll come,” because state school regulations mandate that the district proposing the change file a detailed report with the state Commissioner of Education to justify the move. And the district that is petitioning for the change must provide the proposed receiving district with a year’s notice before the change can happen.
Blood said the earliest that Kearny could expect to see any East Newark students would likely be the start of the 2015-2016 school year and then again, only if the Commissioner approves the deal.
An academic achievement profile of East Newark’s grade 8 performance is listed on the State School Report Card, published on the N.J. Department of Education (DOE) web site, as measured by the NJASK (New Jersey Assessment of Skill & Knowledge) standardized test.
It is noted that 87% of the nearly 240 youngsters who attend the borough’s single K-8 school are Hispanic and Spanish is the primary language spoken at home among 66% of the school’s population. Additionally, 89% of that population is categorized as “economically disadvantaged.”
Of those East Newark 8thgraders who took NJASK in 2010-2011, 69% were “proficient” and 28% were “partly proficient” in Language Arts Literacy; in 2011-12, 57% were proficient and 43% were partly proficient; and in 2012-2013 (the most current data available), 90% were proficient and 10%, partly proficient.
NJASK Math results showed 48% proficient and 34% partly proficient in 2010- 2011; 39% proficient and 57% partly proficient in 2011-2012; and 39% proficient and 23% partly proficient in 2012-2013. NJASK Science testing had 72% proficient and 17% partly proficient in 2010- 2011; 48% proficient and 30% partly proficient in 2011-2012; and 48% proficient and 10% partly proficient in 2012-2013.
Overall, the DOE says East Newark Public School’s performance “lags in comparison to schools across the state” and “is about average when compared to its peers.” However, the DOE rates the school’s student growth performance “high when compared to its peers” and that gives Shlala reason for some optimism.
Because of their generally low socio-economic status and because many students don’t hear English spoken at home, Shlala said, “Our kids are behind the eight ball but we’re going to see improvement incrementally.”
Shlala said he expects to see additional improvement after having increased the number of basic skills teachers, from one to four, to work primarily with “at-risk” children three times a week; continuing an after-school program and three-week summer program; opening up a computer lab to “parents and grandparents” for English reinforcement; and, most recently, applying to make the entire school Title I-funding eligible and thereby expand the role of the basic skills instructors and widen enrollment in the summer program.
Meanwhile, there is the matter of nursing along the feasibility study for the possible move of eighth-graders to Kearny High. “We anticipate that being done the latter part of the spring and then we’d request a hearing before the state Office of Administrative Law in June or July,” Shlala said.
The study, which will assess how the proposed new sending-receiving relationship would impact on educational programs, ethnic demographics and economics, will be reviewed by an administrative law judge who would make a recommendation to the Commissioner of Education who would have final say on the matter, Shlala said.
Shlala said he planned to send a newsletter soon to parents and/or guardians advising them of the steps being taken and explaining that “nothing is going to happen right away. We don’t want them panicking.”
And, even if the move to Kearny is authorized by the Commissioner, the borough school board doesn’t intend to move all the East Newark students attending Harrison High out all at once, Shlala said. “We would do it in phases, maybe starting with the freshman class, and spreading it out over, say, three years.”
Two to three months down the road, Shlala said, parents and/or guardians would be invited to public meetings with the Morristown lawyers and their experts to learn more about the process.
At the same time as the lawyers are moving ahead with their research, representatives of East Newark and Harrison school districts are continuing informal talks about a possible reconciliation of their differences on tuition fees, according to Shlala and his Harrison counterpart, Schools Superintendent James Doran.
“We assume their feasibility study is still taking place,” Doran said, “but there are still ongoing negotiations. I would think there needs to be some public discussions involving the parents of East Newark at some point.”
Doran said that state school law provides for different methods of accounting in computing per-pupil costs between “Abbott” districts like Harrison and non-Abbotts like East Newark and that these differences can provide a legitimate rationale for why East Newark is being charged the tuition fee that the borough feels is unfair.
“We feel that East Newark’s kids are getting a great shake in Harrison,” Doran said. “It’s just unfortunate that three communities now have this tension among them.”