"I'm not happy about this either," Mills said. "If I hadn't removed them, [the state] would have held millions of dollars from the district."
Under an accountability plan created this year when New Jersey was granted a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind requirements, principals in the state's worst-performing schools must be replaced if they cannot produce improved student achievement after three years.
Seventy-five public schools, labeled "priority schools," are bound by the rule. Receiving the designation were 23 of Camden's 26 schools, many of which have long-entrenched problems. Four failed to make adequate progress over three years.
In a letter to the district in June, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf ordered the principals at Woodrow Wilson High, Charles Sumner Elementary, Henry L. Bonsall Elementary, and East Camden Middle replaced by the start of the school year.
No other district received such an order, according to state education officials.
But the state offered no guidance on what to do with the displaced administrators, whose contracts prevent them from being fired or demoted, Mills said.
"My hands were tied," he said.
So Mills created the title of "principal on special assignment" and posted the four to different departments.
Marry C. Ellerbe, formerly of East Camden Middle School, was reassigned to the Parent Solution Center. Janis Kauffman was moved from Sumner Elementary to the district's guidance and testing department. And Bonsall's Deborah Olusa was reassigned to the truancy and attendance department.
Tyrone Richards, formerly at Wilson High, was sent to Camelot, a private alternative-education provider that has 400 students - about 3 percent of the district's enrollment - in three school programs. Calvin Gunning has held a similar position at Camelot since last year.
Gunning, who is also president of the Camden principals' union, said he and Richards would split duties overseeing Camelot's programs.
The reassigned principals are not happy with their new titles, Gunning said. Kauffman appealed to the state to reconsider her removal but was denied, he said.
Three years was not enough time to turn around a persistently failing school, Kauffman said in June. "I was brought [to Sumner] in 2008. . . . It took a while to change the culture and get order."
Olusa also has stated that she would prefer to be in a school, Gunning said.
"We are highly disappointed that some of our principals have worked, some for 20-some years, and are now being treated like second-class citizens," he said.
All of the principals have retained their $116,000-plus salaries.
The district hired Karen Jones-Rodgers, an elementary principal in the Chester Upland School District, to head Bonsall. She worked in Camden's Freedom Academy Charter School in 2004 and 2005.
Lisa Thomas, a high school administrator in Philadelphia, was hired as principal at Wilson.
The vice principal at East Camden Middle, Shareef Daaliya, was promoted to principal there. And Susan Goyins, principal at the recently closed Lanning Square School in Parkside, will be principal at Sumner.
Joseph D. Carruth, whom the board terminated as principal of Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School six years ago, will return to the district Thursday, but not heading a school.
Carruth, 44, also has been named a principal on special assignment. He is to work with the district's safety and security department and will review bullying and intimidation guidelines, Mills said.
Carruth sued under the state's Conscientious Employee Protection Act, alleging that the district fired him for publicly reporting in 2005 that he was asked to tamper with students' state test scores. He was awarded an $860,000 settlement last year.
In March, an arbitrator ruled that the district should reinstate Carruth as a principal by July 1, but the school board voted to reinstate him for the school year beginning in September.
Contact Claudia Vargas at 267-815-1953, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on Philly.com.