Christie to Announce State Takeover of Camden Schools

Matt Katz and Claudia Vargas, Philly, March 25, 2013

Gov. Christie plans to announce Monday that he is taking the extraordinary step of putting the educational and fiscal management of the Camden School District under state control, The Inquirer has learned.

As part of the takeover of what the state considers the worst-performing district in New Jersey, Christie will appoint a new superintendent and leadership team, shifting the school board to an advisory role, according to Christie administration officials briefed on the plan.

The Republican governor’s move nonetheless has support from at least a few school board members and key Democratic leaders in the South Jersey political establishment, some of whom are expected to join Christie at the takeover announcement Monday in the city, officials said.

Camden will become the fourth urban district under state control, after Paterson, Newark, and Jersey City. This is the first takeover initiated by Christie, who will add the severely challenged district to his education portfolio less than eight months before his reelection bid.

Though the news will likely be greeted with relief by those who believe the district is permanently broken, critics will cite the state’s previous–and largely unsuccessful–interventions in Camden schools, government, and law enforcement.

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Officials said a national search would be conducted to find a leader for the district, which has a 49 percent graduation rate, second-worst in New Jersey.

Three of the district’s schools are the lowest-performing in the state, and 90 percent are in the bottom 5 percent. Less than 20 percent of fourth graders are proficient in language arts literacy, and just 28 percent of 11th graders are proficient in math.

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The state has long had some degree of control over the school system. Most recently, a state-appointed monitor has been empowered to veto questionable spending.

In addition, since the start of the school year, 12 state-appointed, state-paid employees have been assigned to a Camden Regional Achievement Center to oversee and improve 23 of the district’s 26 schools considered among the lowest-performing in the state.

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The state funds 86 percent of the district’s $327 million budget to educate 12,000 district and 4,000 charter students. The governor’s proposed budget would increase funding next year by $3.6 million.

The district spends $23,709 per student, more than $5,000 more than the per-student average in the state. The 9-1 student-teacher ratio is the lowest of large districts.

“The problem isn’t a lack of funding,” an administration official said. “The system is broken, and it’s clear that additional state involvement is necessary to truly address the systemic problems and get the Camden School District on the right track.”

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Takeovers do not come without controversy. Earlier this month, leaders in the Paterson and Jersey City School Districts called for an end to what they described as unsuccessful takeovers of their districts.

Christie has spent considerable time working in conjunction with Democratic Mayor Cory Booker on the state-run Newark schools, having joined him on The Oprah Winfrey Show to accept a $100 million matching grant for the district from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He also was involved in hiring the district’s superintendent and making changes in collective bargaining in the Newark teacher contract to include higher pay for better performance.

In Camden, which has had state involvement in its schools and local government in one form or another for decades, some community dissent over the loss of self-governance is likely.

In 2002, New Jersey took control of Camden’s municipal government in what was believed to be the largest municipal takeover in U.S. history. In exchange for $175 million in grants and loans that to this day have yet to be fully spent, Camden’s mayor and council answered to a state-appointed chief operating officer.

The takeover, though, failed to reduce Camden’s dependency on state aid, and its homicide and poverty rates remain as high as they have ever been. On his last day in office in 2010, Gov. Jon S. Corzine handed power back to city officials. Elected officials of both parties concluded the takeover was a failure.

The school takeover comes as Camden County is replacing the city Police Department with a county-run force.

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[Editor’s Note: According to the 2010 US Census, Camden is 47 percent Hispanic, 44 percent black, and 5 percent white.]

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