In March 2012, the state's Schools Development Authority (SDA) named Camden High, along with Trenton Central High School, Hoboken's Thomas G. Connors Elementary School, Orange's Cleveland Elementary School, and Orange High School, to the list of schools in most need of "emergent repairs."
But those repairs have yet to start at Camden High, leaving the district on the hook for millions of dollars in short-term fixes and prompting a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union seeking a facilities condition report that the SDA has refused to release.
"Frankly, it's inexcusable that almost a year and a half later nothing has been done," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which filed the denied record request for the facilities report. "The SDA owes an explanation to the students and the staff who they've said deserve safer, more secure facilities."
The agency denied Sciarra's request for the facility report, according to court papers, saying it contained policymaking deliberations and was not complete.
"We're still in the process of going through and identifying what the issues are, meeting with the new people over there and trying to put together a plan," said Kristen MacLean, an SDA spokeswoman. "If there's any information out there, it probably is deliberative and in draft form."
The ACLU said in a brief filed Thursday that because the report was fact-based and "merely describes the physical state of the building and grounds," there is no legal grounds for withholding it - whether a draft or completed. A facility conditions report for Trenton Central High was released. Requests for condition reports on the three other schools also were denied.
"There is a serious concern here. The public has a right to that report," said Robert Farmer, first vice president for the Camden Education Association, the city teachers' union, who asked the SDA earlier this month to release the report. "The community has a right to that report. Students have a right to that report. We want to know what the problems are in the school and when the action will start to take place."
While the court battle goes on, the problems at Camden High are no great secret to students and teachers walking the halls.
"Our schools are deteriorating from the inside out," said Steve Nicolella, who became district facilities director in 2008. "We're fixing short-term issues, but it's the long-term need, that's our challenge."
In the last three years, Nicolella's team of 35 maintenance workers - six electricians for 26 schools - has completed 53,000 work orders, mostly in the 10 buildings nearing or past 100 years old, including Camden High.
Maintaining a century-old building is expensive.
In the last year and a half, the district has spent $5 million on Camden High. It spent nearly $1 million to remove SDA-installed scaffolding, placed on the sides of the buildings as a temporary solution to the crumbling facade and cornices. The district replaced the scaffolding with freestanding canopies, which don't repair the walls but offer a more attractive temporary solution, Nicolella said. It's money that could have gone toward other things, Nicolella said, if the SDA had followed through with the complete facade repair.
"It's like putting your finger in the dike," said former acting Superintendent Peggy Nicolosi, who still oversees Camden High as a district assistant superintendent.
The 2014-15 budget includes $1.5 million to replace the roof on the Camden Vocational Building, part of Camden High's campus, and to refurbish and repair asphalt and sidewalks.
Without the capital for larger renovations, the cash-strapped district has focused on what must get fixed: renovation of a wing destroyed by a fire last year, plumbing issues, broken windows, as well as a new gym and football field and transformation of the cafeteria from a dim dungeon to a modern, brightly painted space.
But issues remain.
"I wear gloves in my third-period class in the downstairs," said Briana Adams, 18, a senior. "We complain about the heat; they never fix it. The vents blow out cold air."
Damiyah Russell, 14, a ninth grader, complained that instead of water fountains, students use water coolers and have to remember to bring a bottle to fill. Lead pipes make the water that runs through the internal pipes unsafe to drink, school officials said.
About once a week, maintenance is called to the school's basement to fix the boilers, which date to the 1950s. "The savings in energy that could come from new energy-efficient boilers would be huge," Nicolella said. "And that's something we could funnel back into the schools."
Camden High's facility problems mirror those in many of the older school buildings, including Henry L. Bonsall Elementary School, J.G. Whittier Family School, Harry C. Sharp Elementary School, Woodrow Wilson High School, and Cramer Elementary, celebrating its centennial this year.
The SDA has completed dozens of projects in Camden and spent $4.8 million at Camden High, the authority said. It also funded the new Morgan Village School and installed new HVAC systems and repaired fire alarms around the district.
Camden High was initially slated to be rebuilt, but the project was cut under Gov. Christie, who downsized the SDA's project list. Camden High did not make the cut in 2011 but in 2012 was listed as an emergent school.
Sciarra, of the Education Law Center, said that districts need to demand action from the SDA if they want to see change.
That can become more complicated when a district's superintendent is appointed by the state, as in Camden, where Paymon Rouhanifard took the helm in August.
"The superintendent, state-appointed or otherwise, has a responsibility on behalf of the students to insist that they immediately commence this work," Sciarra said. "If the district doesn't do that, if he sits back, he's not doing his job."
Rouhanifard has said he is getting feedback on the condition of all the schools and has "begun conversations with the SDA to determine what is needed to move forward with the planned renovation of Camden High, given the real and urgent need for facility upgrades throughout the city."