Time running out to find interim Camden schools chief

Bessie LeFra Young's last day is Friday.
Bessie LeFra Young's last day is Friday.
Posted: June 28, 2012

With just three days left before Camden schools Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young steps down, the school board worked into the night Tuesday to find an interim replacement for her after its initial pick was said to have withdrawn at the last minute.

Peter E. Carter, a 30-year administration veteran of New Jersey public schools, was the board's preliminary pick after it interviewed him and another candidate Monday.

The board was to vote on Carter's appointment Tuesday evening, but he unexpectedly withdrew, sources familiar with the matter said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The board then began to look to Deputy Superintendent Reuben Mills to become interim superintendent, according to one source familiar with the discussions. However, a decision was not made by late Tuesday.

Carter's name came from a list of potential interim superintendents prepared by the state School Boards Association. Those on the list are mostly "retired superintendents who have agreed to serve as interims," association spokesman Mike Yaple said.

"We just provide contacts. It's up to the district to check their background and resumé," Yaple said.

The state board can serve as a consultant in a superintendent search, Yaple said, but Camden has not sought its help.

"Hiring a superintendent is arguably the most important decision a school board will make," Yaple said.

State Education Department spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said the department had "been in contact with the members of the Camden school board regarding their search to find a leader that best fits the needs of the district and their students, but this ultimately remains a local decision and we cannot comment on the personnel process or specific individuals."

Young's last day is Friday. A former top administrator in the Philadelphia School District, Young had a year left in her contract, with a $244,083 salary, at the helm of the long-struggling Camden district.

In a brief letter dated May 11, Young told the board she would resign "for the purpose of retirement." Young faced intense criticism this year from state and city officials as well as community members for long absences and a lack of improvement in academic performance.

Of the district's 26 schools, 23 have been placed on the state's "priority" list of the 72 worst academically performing schools.

Four of those 23 will have to get new principals under a new state rule that a principal must produce adequate improvement on student scores within three years or face reassignment within a district.

In late January, district records showed that Young had been absent from work at least 186 days - about the length of a school year - in the previous 18 months. In five years as superintendent, she was absent at least 221 work days, though district records show she used 75 days of vacation and personal time toward that.

Mills, who was paid $160,000 this school year, performed Young's duties during her absence.

Before coming to Camden as part of Young's team in 2007, Mills served as director of school support services in Philadelphia, overseeing professional development for principals, school police, and food service personnel.

He received his New Jersey administrator certificate in 2008, according to a copy provided by the district.

Under her contract, Young is to receive three months' pay, totaling $62,000, in severance, plus an as-yet-undisclosed amount in reimbursement for travel and other expenses.

Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, or cvargas@phillynews.com or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/camden_flow/


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