Christie doesn’t trust Camden to pick new superintendent

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Why did the State take over Camden’s public schools? The causes are many, but here’s the big one: the state wants to be the one to choose the district’s next superintendent. Yesterday Gov. Christie and Education Comm. Chris Cerf came to Camden to break the news.

In fact, the takeover comes just as the Camden Board of Education was getting close to naming a new superintendent. On Saturday The board interviewed five candidates and last night had second interviews for the narrowed field of three. According to the latest news, e board is planning to go forward with its official “Meet and Greet” for the two finalists tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Octavius V. Catto Community School (map).

The state, though, is making it clear that it will have the final say. The first page of the formal “State Intervention Plan for the Camden School District” states, “Upon State intervention, the Commissioner of Education will recommend to the State Board of Education the appointment of a new State district superintendent. The State district superintendent will be appointed for an initial term that will not exceed three years and the costs of his or her salary will be borne by the Camden school district.”

Clearly, the State was not willing to defer to the School Board’s judgment. Now the State gets to appoint a leader with the set of skills that will edge Camden schoolchildren closer to a semblance of our constitutionally-proscribed “thorough and efficient” education.

This may seem harsh. But, remember, this is the Board that dithered over the approval of a mini-district of five KIPP charter schools, as authorized by the Urban Hope Act. More generally, this past August, the Camden School District commissioned a study entitled “2012-2017 District Strategic Plan and Needs Analysis,” that lambasted the Board for incompetency and inaction. Here is one example posted on the district’s website:

“Few board members ask to review student achievement data, and those who do are not confident that they know how to use it. There is a perception that other members do not want to see the data, either because they do not understand it or because they are “in denial” about what it says.”

Reaction to the takeover

The backlash isn’t as loud as one might expect. With the exception of one or two paranoid emissions from N.J .’s anti-reform contingent, stakeholders accepted the news gracefully, even hopefully.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd said, “Each and every one of our children deserves the opportunity for the same kind of education afforded their peers in suburban America, which is just a few miles away.” Camden School Board President Kathryn Blackshear volunteered that “”I’m in the toughest spot I’ve ever been in my life. But I knew this day was coming. Always knew this day was coming.”

Sean Brown, another board member, told WHYY’s Radio Times today that he was “cautiously optimistic” and that “we all understood its inevitability,” although he was concerned “that the board could be stuffed with political hacks.” Senate President Steve Sweeney issued a statement recognizing that the Camden takeover is “a dramatic change, but it’s [sic] time has come.” According to the Courier Post, Karen Borelli, a physical education teacher in the Camden public schools, “saw opportunity as the state takes the reins.”

NJEA, NJ’s primary teacher union, issued an atypically acquiescent statement, given its firm advocacy for local control: “Everyone knows that educational leadership has been inconsistent in Camden over the years, and we expect the Christie administration will acknowledge the need for – and work to provide – consistent and strong instructional leadership in the city’s schools.” NJEA should be applauded for its measured response in spite of the likelihood of further charter school expansion, not the association’s favorite cup of tea.

Camden’s schools are in trouble

Camden was a prime candidate for a state takeover. The district as a whole would be on anyone’s top 10 list of the worst in the country. Test scores are terrible, even compared with cities that struggle with the educational burdens of comparable degrees of poverty. The graduation rate is 49%, 37 points below the state average. Cost per pupil comes in at $23,709 per kid.

Camden represents the fourth state takeover in N.J.’s history; the others are Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City. Unlike the other three takeovers, however, this current School Board will remain in place (except for the member who resigned last night), supplemented by three appointed non-voting members. Much of the Board’s control will be diminished through the State Intervention and will function as an Advisory Board, a voice without purse-string power.

In reality, the State’s intervention won’t present major changes to the district’s governance. A Board’s greatest power — besides choosing a superintendent — is budget creation, and Camden already has a Fiscal Monitor (who will continue in that position) with veto power over the Board’s budgetary agenda. It’s really more about perception. We acknowledge that Camden’s public schools are inadequate. We acknowledge that the current system is broken. We acknowledge that that student achievement won’t improve without rescission of local control, and that such action is in the best interest of Camden’s schoolchildren.

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Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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