New state review again flunks Camden School District

Posted: May 15, 2012

Any hope of burnishing the beleaguered Camden City School District’s image before Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young’s imminent departure seemed to disappear Monday when the state Department of Education’s revised “Quality Single Accountability Continuum” performance review’s findings became public. The scores show the district still failing in virtually all categories.

The district had appealed the initial QSAC report of early February that gave the district failing grades in four of the five categories — instruction and program (7 percent); operations (47 percent); personnel (9 percent); and governance (33 percent). It received 79 percent in fiscal management, which acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said was mostly because the district was checked daily by a state-appointed fiscal monitor.

Three months later, in a letter to Young dated May 8 that The Inquirer obtained Monday, the state Department of Education’s chief performance officer, Bari Anhalt Erlichson, stated that the district had “submitted sufficient evidence” to raise scores on instruction and program by two percentage points (to 9 percent) and personnel by 10 points (to 19 percent). The scores in the other three categories remained unchanged.

The results of the reconsideration are to be presented to the school board Tuesday night, the same night the board is expected to discuss and vote on Young’s separation agreement. Young, whose nearly five-year tenure became controversial in part because of her prolonged absences, is said to be in negotiations on a buyout package. She has blamed illness for her poor attendance record.

The state’s QSAC findings are drastically different than the district’s self-assessment, in which it gave itself a perfect 100 percent in personnel, 98 percent in operations, 78 percent in fiscal management, 67 percent in governance, and 61 percent in instruction and program.

Young did not return calls for comment Monday.

A district improvement plan for each of the five categories is due to the state by June 1, according to Erlichson’s letter.

Parallel to the district’s plan, the state is working on an in-depth evaluation of the district, triggered by its initial QSAC scores. The evaluation should have been complete but Cerf has granted an extension, said state Department of Education spokesman Justin Barra.

Though under amended QSAC regulations the state could take over the Camden district (because of the low scores), Barra said it would be “premature” to discuss any possibility of a takeover.

“That’s what the law allows,” Barra said, “but we are looking at all options.”

On March 7, the state Board of Education changed the conditions that could justify a “full state intervention” under QSAC. It used to be that a district had to fail all five categories for a full intervention, but the law now permits a takeover even if a district under a state-appointed fiscal monitor passes in the fiscal-management category — a situation that directly applies to Camden.

Although five other districts have state-appointed fiscal monitors, Barra said those districts did not perform as poorly as Camden in the non-fiscal categories.

QSAC is a periodic review of school districts’ performance launched by the state in 2007. The process involves a self-evaluation by the district followed by an evaluation by the state.

The district had a bad showing in its first state review, in 2007 during the administration of Gov. Jon S. Corzine. The state could have taken over the district, but did not. In 2010, another QSAC showed little improvement. Camden failed or scored less than the passing grade of 50 percent in three areas.

State officials have argued that QSAC does not provide an automatic trigger for intervention. However, the federal No Child Left Behind waiver New Jersey received this year dictates some sort of intervention for at least 23 of Camden’s 26 schools, which were placed on the state’s newly created “Priority Schools” list.

Seventy-five of the state’s worst performing schools are on the Priority Schools list. Those that fail to improve within three years may be closed, according to the state.

Under the No Child Left Behind waiver, New Jersey is to set up seven “Regional Achievement Centers” staffed by school turnaround experts by September. One likely will be housed in Camden.

Camden School Board President Susan Dunbar-Bey, who had said the state’s initial QSAC scores could not possibly be correct, did not return calls for comment on Monday. She recently decided to retire from the board and Tuesday likely will be her last meeting.

Contact Claudia Vargas at 267-815-1953, cvargas@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, “Camden Flow,” on www.philly.com/philly/blogs/camden_flow/

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