Milan Asks State To Run Camden School District The City Is ``battling The Lack Of Education,'' The Mayor Said. He Asked The Governor For The Takeover.

Posted: March 25, 1998

CAMDEN — Saying that his city's schools have reached ``Def-Con 1'' - the highest stage of battle alert - Camden Mayor Milton Milan has called for a state takeover of the school district.

``We are beyond talking, beyond discussion,'' said Milan, a former Marine whose administration has been marked by a take-no-prisoners aggressiveness. ``We are at war, battling the lack of education in the city.''

In a letter to Gov. Whitman, Milan pointed to a recent study that put Camden's dropout rate at 70 percent; 50 percent usually is cited by district officials. He also criticized the district's per-pupil spending of $8,647, higher than affluent suburban neighbors (Cherry Hill's is $7,990), and the low-scoring academic performances of Camden students.

``To say that my administration is outraged at the horrendous conditions that are existent in Camden's schools is a definite understatement,'' wrote Milan, in the letter dated yesterday. ``It is my opinion that the conditions in the Camden School District have reached a critical stage. Our youth are being provided with a level of education that relegates too many of our young men to criminal careers and lifetimes of dependency; the prospects for many of our young women are equally bad or worse.''

The Camden School District, which encompasses 20,000 students, 34 schools and 4,000 employees, falls into the state's ``special needs'' category, making it one of 28 poor, urban districts receiving extra funding in an effort to improve education.

This year, Camden got an additional $20 million. As a special-needs district, it is subject to state scrutiny of its spending and student achievement.

Camden is ranked as a Level II district by the state - one step away from Level III takeover. As a Level II district, Camden is under intense monitoring from the state and has filed a corrective-action plan.

Besides Camden, Atlantic City, Trenton and five other districts are in Level II. Jersey City, Newark and Paterson are under takeovers.

A state Department of Education spokesman said the state is not contemplating a takeover of Camden schools, but would review Milan's letter.

``We understand the Mayor's concerns,'' said Peter Peretzman. ``If he wasn't concerned, he wouldn't be human.''

Milan's letter caught Camden school officials and board members by surprise. Milan, they said, had not asked to meet with them and had not discussed his concerns before asking for a takeover.

``He didn't have the courtesy to talk with elected officials. This seems like an immature mind trying to discuss a complex issue,'' said board member Jose Delgado.

In fact, said board member Yocantalie Jackson, she does not recall Milan ever attending a school board meeting.

In his letter, Milan also cites a host of problems that have plagued the district for years, including deterioration of aging buildings. In December alone, ceilings at two schools fell in, requiring extensive renovations. Some students from Bonsall School are still going to classes in a Cherry Hill building until ceiling repairs are finished at their school.

Board members noted that they, too, share Milan's concerns, but say the district is moving toward improvement under the state-approved corrective action plan. They also called Milan's assessment of urban-school needs misinformed.

``He's speaking from a lack of knowledge,'' said Jackson, who noted that urban districts have higher per-pupil spending because the needs of students are often greater. ``I don't consider the amount of money spent on a child in Camden a problem; that's necessity.''

Jackson and Delgado also faulted Milan for relying on the numbers in the dropout study conducted for the school district by Rowan University. School district officials have not released results of the study, but they are analyzing its findings.

``I think the numbers are somewhat skewed,'' Jackson said of the report, which apparently did not include students attending the city's Brimm Medical Arts High School.

``We as government agencies in the city of Camden should be moving to work together, not against each other,'' said Jackson. ``If we start talking about state takeovers, then the state can take over the entire city of Camden. There are problems within the city as well as within the district.''

Under a new school-funding law, the state allows the education commissioner to make changes in district curricula and budgets without a takeover. In addition, the state is working to create ``whole-school reform'' in all 28 special-needs districts.

``Takeover is the last drastic step,'' said Peretzman. ``And we have things in place that we can do before we get to that stage.''

Milan said his request is an attempt to hold the state accountable for the money it is pouring into the Camden district. About 89 percent of Camden's $230-million budget comes from state funding.

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