By Adam Clark | NJ Advance Media for

New Jersey’s takeover of Paterson Public Schools is officially over, three decades after the state seized control of the troubled district.

The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to fully return local control to the city school board. The vote, mostly a formality, concludes a two-year transition to local control that began in 2018.

“Today, the voices of the people of Paterson have been restored to their full strength,” said Eileen Shafer, superintendent of Paterson schools. “We eagerly take on the full responsibility of shaping Paterson’s future.”

The state took over the struggling district in 1991, seeking to turn around student performance and low graduation rates. The decision to return full control is based on Paterson’s performance in the state’s school monitoring system, which evaluates districts in five areas: governance, fiscal management, personnel, operations, and instruction and program.

Shafer pointed to improved graduation rates, higher reading levels and students accepted to Ivy League universities as accomplishments that seemed unlikely even a decade ago.

“The rebirth of our city is public education,” said state Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, who has worked in the district since the state takeover began. “I enthusiastically look at this day as a day that we have a great success.”

Gov. Phil Murphy credited the district’s school board, administrators, educators and students who “have conquered the challenges” they faced.

“I am confident that Paterson Public Schools will continue to provide our students with the high-quality education that they deserve,” he said.

However, local leaders have warned that the district of nearly 25,000 students desperately needs more state financial support. Paterson remains one of New Jersey’s most distressed cities, with high rates of poverty and violent crime.

Despite receiving more than $445 million in state aid in the 2020-21 school year, the city’s schools have been severely underfunded, based on the state’s school funding formula. They have been forced to slash hundreds of jobs in recent years, school leaders said.

Though graduation rates have improved, they remain among the lowest in the state, and the vast majority of Paterson students are still missing the mark on standardized exams.

“We still have work to do,” Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said. “We have to ensure that every student is set up for success.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the city’s challenges and goals, such as reducing class size. It will be difficult to do so without increased aid, Shafer said.

“Things were bad enough before the pandemic,” she said of the financial stress on the district. “I can only imagine what it is going to be like after the pandemic.”

Jersey City Public Schools are in the process of transitioning to local control, leaving Camden as the only district in full state-intervention status.

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