Judge to rule on whether NJ will pay to transfer Camden students

Posted: October 23, 2012

A New Jersey administrative law judge is expected to rule this week on a request from three Camden parents to transfer their children from failing to higher-performing schools at state expense.

The class-action petition filed last week argues that the Camden school district has failed to meet the state's constitutional requirement of providing a "thorough and efficient" education. At a hearing Monday in the Offices of Administrative Law in Mercerville, attorneys for the Camden parents asked for immediate educational "relief" for Keanu Vargas, 12, a seventh grader at Pyne Poynt Family School; Freddy Hernandez, 5, a first grader at Davis Elementary School; and Emmanuel Roldan, 8, a fourth grader at Dudley Elementary School.

Camden school board attorney Lester Taylor argued that the parents' application did not meet the legal standards for relief, including proving that the children would suffer irreparable harm if they were not transferred.

"It is legally and procedurally inappropriate to grant the relief the petitioners are seeking, which is essentially a voucher," Taylor said after Monday's hearing.

The question of whether Vargas, Hernandez, Roldan and other students are receiving a "thorough and efficient" education in the Camden district is beyond the need for immediate relief and will be decided as the case moves forward, he said.

If Administrative Law Judge Edward Delanoy recommends the children's transfer, the case will move forward with a request for class action so that the rest of the district's 15,000 students could have the same opportunity to transfer, petitioners' co-counsel Julio Gomez said.

In a brief filed before Monday's hearing, the board argued that the petitioners were relying on the district's "overall alleged shortcomings, without providing any data specific to the academic achievements of petitioners individually."

The school board's brief also made references to two of the mothers previously noting to The Inquirer that their sons get straight A's as an argument against the petition's seeking immediate transfer.

"They are trying to steer away focus on the district," Gomez said, adding that he believes focusing on individual students is an incorrect analysis of New Jersey's "thorough and efficient" requirement.

At Monday's hearing, Gomez and Patricia Bombelyn argued that the district failed to meet the constitutional requirement because it doesn't have a curriculum aligned with state standards, so children aren't learning what they're supposed to learn.

The parents, their attorneys, and advocates for charter schools and voucher programs have asked the state to use the roughly $22,000 per pupil it spends in Camden to fund the children's education at better-performing schools, whether private schools in the district or public schools elsewhere.

The petitioners cited state-compiled data that found 23 of Camden's 26 schools to be among the 75 worst-performing public schools in New Jersey.

Once Delanoy makes a recommendation, state Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf will have 45 days to either accept or reject the judge's decision, Bombelyn said.

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

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