Critics say Camden's state-appointed schools chief will have too much power

Posted: April 02, 2013

An in-depth state report on Camden's schools "in crisis" laid out several recommendations in August, including hiring a superintendent who could transform the district.

But just as the Camden Board of Education had narrowed its search to three candidates last week, the process came to a halt when Gov. Christie announced a full state takeover of Camden schools.

Working through the office of state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, Christie will appoint the next superintendent. And in a move that has some education advocates concerned, the new leader of Camden schools will have more power than any of his or her predecessors.

Under the state's intervention plan, the local Board of Education will be reduced to an advisory role. The new superintendent will assume the powers of the local board and will answer directly to the education commissioner.

The state's monitor for Camden, who has had veto power over the board's spending decisions since 2006, will have no authority to override the superintendent's actions.

"There are very few instances when absolute power is a good thing, especially when it comes to public schools," said former school board member Jose Delgado.

Whomever Cerf chooses for Camden superintendent will negotiate and decide on contract agreements with renaissance school operators, who operate by looser rules than traditional public schools.

The current school board recently approved an agreement for the state's first renaissance school, a public-private hybrid created under the state's Urban Hope Act that Christie signed in 2012.

So who will be chosen to hold such sweeping power for the next three years, the term specified in the intervention plan? And when will the new superintendent take over the 12,000-student district?

There is no deadline for the search, state officials said.

Though the board spent close to $20,000 on a search firm and narrowed the field to Willingboro Superintendent Ronald Taylor; Denise Saddler, of the Oakland, Calif., school system; and Heidi Ramirez, a former Philadelphia School Reform Commission member, state officials said they would conduct a fresh national search.

Leroy Nunery II, who served as a top administrator in the Philadelphia School District, including as acting superintendent after Arlene Ackerman left, was hired in January as a "highly skilled professional" to oversee governance. That title is defined by the statute governing state intervention.

Nunery, like Cerf, is a former executive at the for-profit education management organization Edison Schools, which operates charter schools.

Nunery's job in the district will continue under the state intervention plan, and he will gain at least two "highly skilled professional" colleagues to oversee personnel and special education.

State officials have said that the holders of those jobs would report directly to Cerf. The cost of their salaries will be split by the district and the state.

Also reporting to Cerf is David Hardy, director of the new Regional Achievement Center based in Camden, one of seven in the state.

Hardy was the founding principal at Achievement First East New York Middle School, part of the nonprofit Charter Management Organization, which operates K-12 schools in Connecticut and New York.

Since the start of the school year, about a dozen state-appointed and state-paid employees have been working under Hardy at the Camden RAC, which oversees the district's 23 lowest-performing schools.

Camden has been under some form of state oversight since 1999, largely because of bad fiscal mismanagement, poor test scores, and a high dropout rate.

The reaction to the takeover has been mixed, in part because some critics have said that while a school board is needed for checks and balances, the current board has not held district staff accountable.

"I'm not in favor of this [takeover] model," former board member Philip Freeman said. "But it didn't appear this [current] board was very effective in governance."

Karen Borelli, a health teacher at Brimm Medical Arts High School, said that the current superintendent could have been Bozo the Clown or President Obama, and it would have made no difference.

"It's the board that moves things forward," Borelli said Tuesday. But this board, she said, moved nothing.

"It's all personal agendas, and it was always against the superintendent," she said. "If Christie had [intervened] a while ago, [interim superintendent Reuben] Mills could've done so much more."

But some current school board members blame the state for changing the rules or simply not having enough communication with the board.

"I'm so frustrated with this process," longtime board member Sara Davis said. "They've got the RAC people, they have technical assistants in every department. . . . How much more takeover can you have?"

All current board members were appointed by Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd.

Under the new plan, Cerf will appoint an additional three members, but the new state-appointed superintendent will answer to none.

"In the past, whenever there was an elected board, the superintendent was held accountable by the community," Delgado said. "Now, the community has been bypassed."


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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