Behind Christie's decision to take over Camden's schools

Camden Board of Education President Kathryn Blackshear and school employees, parents, and community members listen to Gov. Christie's "intervention" announcement at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden.
Camden Board of Education President Kathryn Blackshear and school employees, parents, and community members listen to Gov. Christie's "intervention" announcement at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 27, 2013

A month ago, Gov. Christie's senior staff members laid out the pros and cons of taking over New Jersey's worst-performing school district: Camden.

Christie sat alone in his office afterward and came to two conclusions.

First, "enough is enough." He had heard calls for a state takeover when he campaigned in 2009 in Camden; his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, had long advocated the move. "Enough waiting, enough excuses, enough of the blame game," Christie recalled thinking.

Second, "I don't want to look back on my time as governor and say I should have done something differently, I should have acted more aggressively."

And so, aggressively he acted. In front of more than 100 community members, reporters, and politicians Monday in Camden's Woodrow Wilson High School library, Christie pointed to the low test scores and high dropout rate that he said prompted him to initiate the first state takeover of a school district since 1995. The city's district, he said, is at a "breaking point."

But he offered few details to explain how the "intervention" would affect the district's 12,000 students or its teachers and parents - or how it would be any different from the control that state officials have long had in the district.

Christie never uttered the word takeover - instead speaking of a "partnership" with the community and local Democrats. In a soft voice, he vowed to treat Camden children "as if they're our own children."

Of most immediate significance, Christie will appoint a new superintendent.

Even there, questions abound: The school board, with members appointed by the mayor, already has a search under way - with some candidates in town this week for interviews. The board has spent $18,500 on a search firm, plus accommodations and travel for candidates.

The board may have some good candidates whom the state would consider, Christie said, but the board now will serve in only an advisory role and has no final say.

A few hours after the news conference, school board member Kathryn Ribay resigned.

"This sudden symbolic move, perhaps driven by a fear of the strong, independently minded finalists chosen by the board in its superintendent search, is more focused on publicity than academic options," Ribay wrote in her resignation letter.

She added, "I cannot participate in the continued disenfranchisement of the City of Camden."

Only three of nine board members publicly supported the takeover announcement: Barbara Coscarello, Kathryn Blackshear, and Felicia Reyes-Morton.

"I'm in the toughest spot I've ever been in my life," board president Blackshear said. "I prayed about this, thought about this. Because for me, the state has always been here. . . . But I knew this day was coming. Always knew. . . ."

Board member Sean Brown, who sat in the audience, referred to the new county-run police force that is replacing the city department: "The vision for the city is, fire all the cops and let the county do it; eliminate the school board and let the state do it; don't govern, let a political boss do it."

Parent Kevin Barfield, whose children get photocopies of textbooks instead of actual books, said that the district has had a state monitor, who can veto any school board decision, for several years, and the district has only gotten worse.

Camden's four-year graduation rate was 49 percent in 2012 - 37 points below the state average and a drop from 57 percent in 2011.

"It's an economic situation rather than education," Barfield said after the announcement. The state already provides the district with almost all of its funding; Christie promised no new funds Monday.

As part of the takeover, the state is dispatching fiscal monitors and "transition guides" to Camden's central office. All district practices will undergo a 90-day review. Curricula is being aligned to state standards.

The state plans to fill many teaching vacancies now covered by regular substitutes, and, as soon as the takeover begins, all children are promised access to books and technology that they do not have now.

A news release from the state also hinted at possible school closings, similar to the closures now under way in Philadelphia. But Cerf said nothing specific was planned.

The South Jersey Democratic legislative delegation endorsed the plan, as did Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd. State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), Christie's likely opponent in the fall gubernatorial campaign, released a statement urging Christie to listen to parents and teachers during the process.

People in districts that are under state control - Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson - said that, decades later, they had barely improved or gotten worse. Activists there claim the state just wants control over their large budgets.

Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex) is sponsoring a bill requiring the state to show progress within five years of a district takeover. Failure to meet certain goals would result in the district's returning to local control.

Both Paterson and Newark are suing to regain local control.

Jonathan Hodges, who has served on the Paterson board since 2002, said the state has controlled the decisions, but has blamed school officials for failures, leading to an endless state reign.

"They'll say that you don't have the capacity to function on your own, and they'll point to failures in the district, which, of course, they run," he said.

Christie acknowledged that he had not met with the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, about the plan. The organization released a statement saying that "the track record for state-run districts has been questionable at best" and that it would "withhold judgment" until more details were available.

Christie bristled when asked whether the takeover meant that he could get involved in contract negotiations and implement merit pay for teachers, which he did in Newark.

"Newark is Newark; Camden is Camden," Christie said. "And you cannot look at every urban area in the same way. There are different opportunities and challenges."

Christie did, however, point to post-Katrina New Orleans as a model for how a school district could be turned around.

A legal process is now under way. The state attorney general filed an "order to show cause" to seek an intervention in the district. That could be approved in as little as six weeks.

The takeover, with a new superintendent in charge, is expected to begin in earnest in time for the new school year.


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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