Monica Yant Kinney: Camden school official expresses concern through silence

Ray Lamboy abstained on a vote to allow four Renaissance schools.
Ray Lamboy abstained on a vote to allow four Renaissance schools. (MONICA YANT KINNEY / Staff)
Posted: October 18, 2012

If most people think of abstaining as doing nothing, why is Ray Lamboy blamed for killing a plan to resuscitate public education in Camden?

Lamboy didn't vote yes to allow four new, privately run "Renaissance School" complexes to drain students and resources from the failing district, but he didn't vote no, either. Instead, the thoughtful Camden school board member's refusal to say yea or nay late last month left a 4-4 tie that effectively tabled the Renaissance for another day.

"The abstention heard 'round the world" is how Lamboy, 43, dubs his decisive nondecision.

We met for coffee Monday afternoon at the suggestion of a mutual friend who thinks Lamboy's reticence was courageous and in need of explanation. As we chatted, three Camden mothers filed a petition with the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) seeking to flee the city's failing school system.

Even poor parents know Camden spends an astonishingly high $22,000 per student each year, with dismal results. They want all 15,000 kids to be able to take that money and run to other public schools in the region.

So if politicians and parents agree Camden's school system is beyond saving, why try to delay or deny the inevitable?

"If the ultimate goal is to dismantle the school district," Lamboy concedes, "let's do it in a way that doesn't harm children."

Saving, draining

Nine charters already suck minds and money from the Camden school system. Last spring, the Department of Education deemed 23 of the city's 26 public schools among the state's worst.

"Most of our $300 million budget comes from New Jersey taxpayers," Lamboy grants. "They want a return on investment. Gov. Christie is constantly confronted by the fact that we don't perform."

In January, Christie signed into law the Urban Hope Act, allowing up to 12 Renaissance schools - four projects each in Camden, Newark, and Trenton.

Not charters, these hybrids will be run by nonprofit operators able to funnel public money to private builders and for-profit management companies. Critics immediately seized on a controversial provision that allows Renaissance schools to enter into secret, no-bid contracts.

The oft-maligned Camden school board was limited to granting initial approval of proposals that could radically alter education in the city. By the time the group met to vote in September, Lamboy had spent months decrying a lack of analysis of the long-term impact.

"They were making it up as they went along," he said of proponents. "Between Renaissance schools and charters, we could have 1,000 kids a year leaving. In five years, we'd be down to 7,000 kids."

Tens of millions of dollars would disappear from the district's coffers, leaving the board to grapple with an unsustainable infrastructure.

"How many buildings will we need to close? Which buildings?" he asks. "How do we keep from having 40 students in a class or having to bus children across town? There's a lot of collateral damage that needs to be avoided."

Thoughtful pause

Lamboy grew up in Cherry Hill but now lives in Cramer Hill. The head of the Latin American Economic Development Association in Camden has no children yet, but clearly supports neighbors seeking safer and more stimulating school environments.

"But never in my wildest dreams," he says, "did I expect any proposal to involve more than one building for 600 kids."

Instead, the Renaissance project garnering the most support before the vote called for five schools ultimately educating 3,000 students - a semiprivate minischool district.

Lamboy abstained to force discussion of those who won't be rescued. He did so mindful of how an overhaul in New Orleans left a tattered district with meager resources to educate pupils with special needs.

"I don't think there's an alternate ending," Lamboy acknowledges. "If that's our role, we'll be the best at what we do. But if that's where we're going, we must do it fairly."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @myantkinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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