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3-26-12 Education Issues in the News
NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: Assembly’s Opportunity Scholarship Act Bill…School vouchers back on table with scaled down measure by Democratic leadership

Asbury Park Press-Associated Press - Promise, obstacles in plan to merge 2 NJ colleges

Daily Record - Parsippany criticizes state in lawsuit against school superintendent

NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: Assembly’s Opportunity Scholarship Act Bill…School vouchers back on table with scaled down measure by Democratic leadership

By John Mooney, March 26, 2012 in Education|3 Comments

What it is: The proposed bill, A-2830, is the latest version of a long-running proposal to create a system of publicly funded scholarships or vouchers for students to attend schools of their choice, public or private. Sponsored by state Assemblymen Angel Fuentes and Lou Greenwald, both Camden County Democrats, the bill would limit the program to seven school districts and 20,000 students, the smallest number yet.

What it means: The proposal for the first time has in Greenwald a prime sponsor from the Democratic leadership team. Greenwald is the Assembly majority leader. That alone gives it the best chance yet in an Assembly that has been a formidable obstacle. Whether that’s enough to see it passed is another question.

The Senate version: A similar but more expansive version was filed earlier in the state Senate, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union).

Where they stand: The Assembly bill at this point is actually just a proposed bill, not yet formally introduced. That will come in the Assembly’s next regular session, which won’t be until May when both chambers return from budget break. It has yet to be posted for committee hearing.

Why seven districts? “I think seven districts is a rational number,” Greenwald said. “It is a number that identifies districts with a significant number of chronically failing schools, and I believe it brings the costs far more in line.”

Other key details:

·         The bill calls for a four-year pilot in which the state would provide matching tax credits to corporations that contribute to a scholarship program for students to attend outside schools.

·         It would only apply to students attending “chronically failing schools,“ as defined by their test scores, in seven districts: Newark, Camden, Trenton, Passaic, Lakewood, Asbury Park and Elizabeth.

·         Each scholarship would be for a maximum of $6,000 for K-8 and $9,000 for high school. Students will need to meet an income threshold to be eligible. The threshold is a household income of no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

·         The credits would be capped at $13.8 million the first year and escalate to $55.2 million in its fourth year. The number of scholarships will top at 2,000 in the first year and 8,000 by year four. Seventy percent will go to elementary schools.

·         A new state-appointed Opportunity Scholarship Board will oversee the program, including the selection of an organization to distribute the grants. The board must also ensure annual audits of the program, and an independent study by year four.

·         The bill appropriates $1.5 million the first year for the operation of the board.

Receiving schools: Schools receiving the students will face responsibilities as well. They will have to take the scholarships as full tuition payment, administer and report the results of state assessments for the applicable students, and agree to enroll the student for at least two years, barring a serious infraction. Sectarian schools must allow students to opt out of any religious instruction or activity.

 

Asbury Park Press-Associated Press -  Promise, obstacles in plan to merge 2 NJ colleges

9:31 PM, Mar. 25, 2012 | Written by Geoff Mulvihill, Associated Press

 

TRENTON — They’re two state universities with campuses 20 miles apart. One has a law school and business school. One has schools of education, business and engineering and a medical school that will hold its first classes this year.

Neither did more than about $8 million worth of research per year.

But merge Rowan University and Rutgers University’s Camden campus into one school — as Gov. Chris Christie is pushing — and that figure nearly doubles. The new school would be one of about 70 in the country with all five of those major programs and would be New Jersey’s second public comprehensive research university with the potential to add new programs and educate more students in southern New Jersey, a place with a shortage of college seats.

But if the plan does move ahead it might be a long time before it’s clear whether it worked. Across the country, such merger plans often fall apart because of problems similar to those raised in New Jersey: dissent from the universities and politicians, concerns about conflicting campus cultures and contractual and financial barriers.

“It’s a really complicated probably 10- to 15-year process,” said Aims McGuinness, an expert in university governance at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. “There’s a big difference between getting it started and making it a reality.”

Christie wants to see a merger — and quickly — as a major piece of a broader reorganization of the state’s university system that was first contemplated to boost the state’s medical education opportunities. The Legislature has had hearings about the proposed merger, but the next step in the process is unclear.

Christie is also calling for a breakup of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, a school that has struggled with corruption problems. Parts of the medical university, including New Brunswick-based Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, would become part of Rutgers’ main campus. Remaining components of UMDNJ would be reorganized and renamed the New Jersey Health Sciences University.

It’s in southern New Jersey where Christie’s plan has run into deep and emotional opposition, mostly from Rutgers-Camden, an institution whose name could disappear in a merger.

Students, faculty, alumni and staff all say they didn’t sign up to be a part of Rowan but rather of a name-brand university. They also question the motives, saying it seems to be more about getting a bigger state allocation than about improving education.

Officials at Rowan are major proponents of the ideas. The former Glassboro State College has expanded rapidly over the past 20 years since it received a $100 million gift from industrialist Henry Rowan. Enrollment is around 12,000.

The combined school would be better than the two separate ones in a few ways — even if there would be initial obstacles, said Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona.

“It’s going to be very challenging,” Cardona said. “But the benefits in the long-term are great.”

For instance, he said, Rowan’s engineering school and Rutgers-Camden’s computational biology program could give rise to a biomedical engineering program.

That could make for better research and room for more students — and help keep close to home southern New Jersey students who now cross state lines for school.

But there are potential pitfalls.

At Rutgers, where there are more than 6,200 students, the faculty is research-oriented and faculty members usually teach two classes a semester. At Rowan, professors often have twice as many classes.

To form a research-oriented merged school, it would likely mean class loads would eventually be reduced for Rowan faculty, and that could come at a cost.

“If the result of the merger is in fact to increase the cost to reduce the teaching load, someone should ask: At a time when we’re concerned about costs, does this really make sense?” asked McGuinness.

Rowan’s Cardona said the school would do what Rowan has done well in recent years and find sources of money besides state subsidies and tuition to pay for more costs.

McGuinness says the mergers that make the most sense are the ones where the two universities serve similar populations. He says that’s a factor in a current effort to merge Louisiana Tech with nearby Louisiana State University-Shreveport — a plan that also faces opposition.

McGuinness worked on helping merge the University of Maine at Portland and Gorham State Teachers College in 1969. He said that different campus cultures made the transition a bumpy one. But after 15 years or so, he said the school, now the University of Southern Maine, could be considered a success.

Bob Caswell, a spokesman at Southern Maine, started working there in 1980, a decade after the merger. It was still being debated in his first years there, he said. And there’s still fallout. He recently led a task force to look at how to make the Gorham campus a more attractive place for students to live after several academic programs were moved to Portland. “Those are issues we are still wrestling with,” he said.

Wendell Pritchett, the chancellor at Rutgers-Camden, says there’s a major difference between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan, too. Undergraduates on his campus are less likely to be just out of high school and more likely to have jobs, families and degrees from county colleges. One of his concerns is that a merged school would not cater as much to those students.

And at worst, he said, joining together could drive students away from the school and its struggling host city.

“Several prospective parents have said to me: ‘If my kid’s going to get a Rowan degree, I’m going to send him to Glassboro. Why would I send him to Camden?’” Pritchett said.

———

Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill

 

 

Daily Record - Parsippany criticizes state in lawsuit against school superintendent

11:11 AM, Mar. 25, 2012 | Written by Abbott Koloff

Parsippany school officials, even as they filed a lawsuit against Superintendent Lee Seitz, charged in court papers that state officials asked them to take an illegal action against their schools chief and ignored requests for clarifications.

They allege that the state wanted so much money taken out of Seitz’s paycheck late last year that he would have been working for free for the month of December.

And invoices show they paid $7,833 in legal costs over five months wrangling with the state over Seitz’s contract and filing a lawsuit against their superintendent in order to satisfy the state’s demands. The actual amount is higher because the district began breaking down legal costs only since last October in a dispute that’s been going on for more than a year.

The lawsuit, filed a week ago in administrative court, asks Seitz to return $37,733.73 in excess salary paid under a contract the school board later rescinded under pressure from the state. District officials told the state earlier this year that they would file the suit -- saying that’s the only way they were able to follow Morris County Executive Superintendent Kathleen Serafino’s directive to recover the money.

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in administrative court in Newark on June 18, with a preliminary hearing on a motion about depositions scheduled for April 5.

Parsippany School Board President Frank Calabria said this past week that he’s been advised by counsel not to talk about pending litigation. Seitz’s attorney did not respond to messages and state officials said they couldn’t talk about a lawsuit.

The suit was filed as part a counterclaim by the state to a complaint Seitz filed last year against state officials and the board. The superintendent alleges that Serafino exceeded her authority when she ordered his contract rescinded. Seitz also says in the suit that the deal had been approved by Serafino before its terms were publicized.

After it became public, Gov. Chris Chrsitie characterized the contract as an attempt to get around a state-imposed salary cap, which was implemented months later, and called it the “definition of greed and arrogance.”

The district’s counter complaint, while naming Seitz as defendant, focused on a year-long tug-of-war between the state and the district.

School officials allege in court papers that Serafino didn’t respond to repeated requests for a legal basis to support her directive to take money away out of Seitz’s paychecks to make up for prior overpayments. It went on to say district officials refused to comply with the state’s “illegal directive” because they feared exposing employees to civil liability or criminal charges.

The board had agreed to pay Seitz $220,565 this school year in a contract signed in November 2010, $43,065 more than the $177,500 allowed by a state cap imposed three months later. District officials have said Serafino’s office verbally told them the contract was approved while state officials say it wasn’t because the executive superintendent hadn’t signed a letter of approval.

District officials said in the suit that they took no action for months after Serafino directed them to void the contract in four letters, the first on Feb. 8 of last year, because they believed those demands were “capricious and unreasonable, and contrary to law.”

Under threat of losing state aid, they rescinded the contract on July 12 but continued paying Seitz $18,380 a month under its provisions. That led Serafino to renew threats to take away aid from the district. The board responded by reducing Seitz’ salary to the cap-imposed $177,500, or $14,791 a month.

Then the state said there was another problem.

Serafino asked the district late last year for documentation showing Seitz repaid them for extra money he’d received under the rescinded contract. The letter, dated Nov. 29, refers to “previous letters” directing that “this excess money be returned.” Serafino went on to direct that the overpayments be deducted from Seitz’s checks “so that the total is reclaimed by December 31.”

School district attorney Mark Tabakin wrote back that this was the first time the district had been told it would be required to recover excess payments to Seitz, and that there had been “no prior written directives.” The attorney also said in the letter that the amount to be deducted out of Seitz’s paycheck would mean the superintendent would be required to work a month without pay.

“Dr. Seitz will be working without pay for the month of December (assuming he reports to work in the first instance when advised that he will work without pay)” Tabakin wrote. “I am sure you appreciate the predicament that your order is creating.”

The state later told the district to deduct money from Seitz’s paychecks over a seven-month period, concluding at the end of this past June. School business administrator Mark Resnick wrote back saying that still came to 41 percent of Seitz’s salary. He also said he was “reluctant to comply … under the danger of committing a disorderly persons offense or putting my license at risk.”

Serafino then asked the district for an “action plan” to recover the money and school officials replied by saying they would file a lawsuit, joining the state’s counterclaim against Seitz.

 


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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