Giving it Up for Trenton

At what point does a state government concede defeat regarding a school district’s accountability? Seems like that might be right now in the Trenton Public Schools, where auditors just uncovered millions of dollars in unpaid bills and unmeasured amounts of duplicitous behavior on the part of school district administrators and officials. According to the Trenton Times, the district failed to include $3.2 million in unpaid bills to special education private placements. It also hid $6.7 million owed for other out-of-district tuition and employee health benefits.

This all comes on the heels of reports that last month that 80 teachers instructing homebound students billed Trenton Public Schools almost $2 million over two years, in many cases double billing or giving lessons to ineligible students. And this past May the district revealed a looming $2 million deficit because of bills received from out-of-district special ed placements that “it did not know students were attending,” according to the state fiscal monitor (who added that “Trenton’s [child study teams’] record-keeping is not too good.”) (See NJ Left Behind coverage here and here.)

Much of the accounting shenanigans appear linked to the special education department. Who’s in charge? Not clear. The Trenton Times was told that Trenton’s Assistant Superintendent of Special Services was “monitoring placements and student attendance.” However, that seat’s now vacant (David Weathington left the district in June) and apparently Superintendent Rodney Lofton is now in charge of special education, in addition to overseeing one of the biggest urban districts in the state. Lofton is overseen by the School Board, all appointed by the mayor, who also are supposed to sign off on details like the annual audit, bills lists (including out-of-district tuition costs), and that “not too good” record-keeping.

That’s the money. How about academic achievement? We’ve covered this ad nauseum, but to recap: latest DOE data shows that 79.5% of Trenton Central High juniors and seniors failed the math portion of the High School Proficiency Assessment and 51.6% failed the language arts section. And it’s not just a high school problem. At Cadwalader Elementary School, for instance, 78.6% of third-graders failed the ASK3 in language arts.

Here’s an idea: use Trenton Public Schools as a pilot for the best of the education reform ideas specifically targeted at under-performing urban school systems. Example: establish a partnership with a successful charter operation like KIPP or Harlem Children’s Zone, create benchmarks, and see how Trenton kids do under leadership with a little more integrity and record of success. Example: take our Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, recently extended by the Legislature, and give it some teeth. Currently districts choose whether or not to volunteer to accept students from other districts. There's not a single hand up in Mercer County, Trenton's home. Who’s got space? Mandate it. Example: pilot a merit pay system right now in the state capitol. Root out ineffective teachers – just in Trenton, now --, measure teacher competency through student growth, and give effective teachers merit pay. A lot of merit pay. (Questions? See this from the LA Times.)

There's nothing to lose, at least for children and parents locked into the chronic failure and mismanagement of the Trenton Public Schools.

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