New Jersey’s state education commissioner has rejected a South Jersey school district’s petition to end its relationship with neighboring Pleasantville because it could leave the latter’s high school with almost no white students.
The decision comes amid a broader legal dispute over racial disparities in schools across the state: A Superior Court judge is weighing whether New Jersey’s schools are unconstitutionally segregated and if the state bears responsibility to fix it.
A ruling is pending in that case.
‘Substantial negative effect’
The pre-K-to-8 Absecon School District, about six miles inland from Atlantic City, is supposed to funnel its graduating middle schoolers to Pleasantville High School, a majority-Black district. Absecon is 71% white but for the first time this year its public schools were majority non-white.
Historically, most Absecon families have avoided sending their children to Pleasantville High, citing concerns about the high school’s low college-attendance rates, educational opportunities and safety. Parents have moved, sent their kids to the county magnet program or paid for private school, rather than send their children to Pleasantville High. And in 2019, Absecon schools asked the state to end its sending relationship with Pleasantville.
Last month, acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan rejected Absecon’s request. Doing so “would have a substantial negative effect on the racial composition of Pleasantville’s student body,” she wrote in her decision.
In the 2019-2020 school year, Absecon sent 26 students to Pleasantville High School, four of whom were white. That year, only five of the more than 800 students at Pleasantville were white. Even though Absecon’s white students make up less than 1% of Pleasantville’s high school student body, Allen-McMillan said, allowing Absecon students to go elsewhere would reduce Pleasantville high school’s white student population by as much as 80%.
Plans to appeal
Absecon’s Board of Education has asked the commissioner to reconsider her decision, arguing her calculations were incorrect. Vito Gagliardi, a lawyer representing Absecon Schools, wrote to the commissioner last week clarifying that severing the district’s relationship with Pleasantville will be phased in and result in one or two white students not attending the high school every year, not an overnight 80% loss in the white student population.
“This is not a case of wealthy white students fleeing a majority-minority district; it is a case of a school district withdrawing its students — an overwhelming majority of whom are minority — from a troubled school district riddled with legal and political strife to pursue better educational opportunities at a thriving and racially diverse school district, with at most only an incidental racial impact on Pleasantville High School,” Gagliardi wrote.
Pleasantville Schools’ former superintendent was placed on paid leave last year and in 2007 several school board members were arrested on bribery charges.
The Absecon School Board also called the commissioner’s decision political and said they planned to appeal, according to a letter posted on its website.
Looking for help
Pleasantville School Board President Jerome Page said he agreed with the commissioner’s decision but urged the state to do more to help his district find a solution that worked for all students.
“We want help, we want help from the [Department of Education] sending some people down to bring us together and work out a plan,” Pleasantville School Board President Jerome Page said. “What we would like to do is to have the commissioner help us build that relationship up with Absecon. She made a ruling but we don’t want her to walk away from this.”
The Pleasantville School Board also intervened in the statewide school segregation lawsuit filed four years ago in Mercer County by a coalition of nonprofits. The suit says nearly half of the state’s Black and Latino students attend public schools that are 90% non-white, in violation of the state constitution, which bans segregated schools.
Waiting for a ruling
In March, Mercer County Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy heard oral arguments in a motion for partial summary judgment. The plaintiffs said the judge should decide whether the state is liable for allowing what they say is the de facto segregation of the state’s schools. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, which defended the state in court, argued the school system — which requires students to attend schools where they live — would have to be rebuilt “brick by brick” if the judge orders the state to address wide racial disparities in schools. The state also said the coalition of nonprofits had not defined the threshold for a segregated school.
A ruling on whether the state is responsible for addressing school segregation is pending in the case.