The state has rejected the requested termination of a send-receive agreement between the Absecon and Pleasantville school districts, delivering a win to activists who have argued that ending the agreement would worsen segregation in the area.
New Jersey’s acting education commissioner issued a decision Wednesday that rejects the petition of the Absecon Public School District to terminate its send-receive agreement with Pleasantville Public Schools, an agreement that currently sees some Absecon students attend Pleasantville High School. Absecon officials had proposed that its high school students instead attend Absegami High School in neighboring Galloway Township.
Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan found that such a change would effectively and unlawfully segregate Pleasantville students, who are predominantly Black and Hispanic.
“(The) removal of Absecon’s high school students from Pleasantville would have a substantial negative effect on the racial composition of Pleasantville,” the commissioner said in her eight-page decision.
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The commissioner largely endorsed the arguments advanced by supporters of Pleasantville. While she acknowledged that relatively few Absecon students choose to attend Pleasantville High School, those who did constituted a large share of the school’s white student body. Their loss, she said, would serve to segregate Pleasantville High School, making it an institution exclusively for non-white students.
The decision Wednesday follows well over a year of protests in which Pleasantville integration activists have pushed back against the requested termination, largely led by the affiliated groups Building One America, Building One New Jersey and the New Jersey Coalition Against Racial Exclusion.
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The Mainland-Pleasantville NAACP also opposed the termination of the send-receive agreement.
The Building One America groups issued a statement Thursday celebrating the decision, saying it would help combat segregation and furnish all students with equal educational opportunities.
“(A) deadly blow was struck against the demonic and opportunity-destroying structure of racial and economic segregation in New Jersey,” read an NJ-CARE news release issued Thursday. “Low-income and majority Black and brown students, such as those in Pleasantville, are the most vulnerable and helpless people in our society. It is too easy for administrators and political leaders to demagogue about racial justice and educational opportunity while ignoring the harms of segregation to the most powerless among us — the students.”
Pleasantville Board of Education President Jerome Page celebrated the decision as well. He said he wanted to meet with Absecon school leaders and discuss a path forward.
“To know that the commissioner rejected it is a good start for Pleasantville and for the community,” Page said Thursday.
The Absecon Board of Education sent a letter to The Press of Atlantic City on Thursday that indicated the board would consider its next steps, including a coming appeal. While saying it would remain committed to helping its at-need students regardless of the send-receive agreement, the board appeared incensed by the commissioner’s decision. It asserted that the “residents and students of Absecon expect and deserve better.”
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“(The) board can only assume that the acting commissioner chose the ‘safe route’ of maintaining the status quo, based on flawed and outdated data, to the detriment of Absecon’s students,” the board said in its letter. “The acting commissioner issued what can only be described as a political decision, not a legal decision.”
The Absecon School District, and people from Absecon who commented in support, argued that its students — 45% of whom are economically disadvantaged and 50% of whom are non-white — would benefit from the resources at Absegami — including its Advance Placement courses, sports and clubs. They also said Absegami would make for a more stable, but still diverse, environment for its students. Any effects on Pleasantville, meanwhile, would be minimal, due to the small number of Absecon students sent to Pleasantville.Pleasantville has been mired in internecine conflict on its Board of Education stemming from its vote to suspend Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee in October, leading to caustic, hours-long board meetings. Parents have also raised concerns over school safety, and the district was put under the supervision of a state-appointed fiscal monitor from 2007 until Oct. 8, 2021.
“As the board considers its next steps, which will include an appeal of the acting commissioner’s ruling to the appellate court, our concerns remain the same — all students deserve a better education than that which can be provided by Pleasantville Public Schools,” the Absecon school board said in its letter.
The petition was technically uncontested by Pleasantville. The Pleasantville Board of Education withdrew its opposition to the termination of the send-receive agreement in January 2021. Although the board announced in June 2021 that it was again opposing the termination, the matter had already been placed before the commissioner, according to a footnote in the Wednesday decision.
The decision cited a 1988 ruling in which the commissioner rejected a similar bid for Absecon to end its send-receive relationship with Pleasantville. That decision, too, was based in part on the substantial, proportional reduction in the white student body that the end of the agreement would cause, despite it involving relatively few students. It cited a litany of other cases, including one as recent as 2020, that the commissioner said created precedent for applying such a principle.
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In 2021, Absecon said less than a 10th of its eighth graders decided to go to Pleasantville, with most going to the Atlantic County Institute of Technology in Mays Landing. The decision said 26 Absecon students attended Pleasantville High School in the 2019-20 school year — of whom four were white. In the 2021-22 school year, 25 Absecon students attended Pleasantville, of whom six were white.
Pleasantville High School, however, had five and 11 white students total in the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years, respectively — meaning the loss of the Absecon students would have decreased the overall white student body by 80% and 54.5%.
“The commissioner cannot find that the loss of 50 to 80 percent of Pleasantville’s white population is insignificant,” the decision said.
Building One America and affiliated groups have staged various marches, protests and presentations to oppose the termination of the send-receive agreement. It marched outside the 2022 Atlantic County Democratic Convention and made a presentation at a Greater Egg Harbor Regional Board of Education meeting in April. It has demanded that Absecon not be allowed to sever the agreement with Pleasantville, and has asked more broadly that Gov. Phil Murphy take more aggressive action to combat segregation of New Jersey schools.
“Governor Murphy must now act with the courage of his acting commissioner of education and follow the lead of NJ-CARE to use this opportunity to support and push for a transformative legislative remedy to fully dismantle the stigmatizing and soul-crushing system of segregation in our public schools,” Building One America and NJ-CARE said in their release.
Contact Chris Doyle