'Difficult decisions' not made, Camden schools face budget gap, board is told

Rebecca Rodriguez, who teaches first graders at Cramer Elementary, was voted teacher of the year.
Rebecca Rodriguez, who teaches first graders at Cramer Elementary, was voted teacher of the year.
Posted: March 26, 2014

CAMDEN School district administrators spent around $56 million more than they brought in over the last two years, contributing to a budget gap - whose extent has not been fully determined - facing the district in the 2014-2015 school year.

Interim Business Administrator John C. Oberg announced the findings at Monday's advisory school board meeting, which was led by Assistant Superintendent Peggy Nicolosi. She sat in for superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard whose wife gave birth to a baby boy on Friday.

"The last couple years the revenue stream, specifically local taxes and revenue, was less than what expenditures were. Our expenditures are rising while our revenues are not, our enrollment is decreasing," Oberg said. "We need to start addressing that."

In 2012-2013, the district spent $236 million and brought in $222 million. In 2013-2014 expenses jumped to $259 million while revenue dipped to $216 million.

The district expects to receive $35 million less than it did this year due to dips in federal and state grant moneys and tax revenues. The tentative budget for 2014-15 is $360 million.

As enrollment dropped, "administrators didn't make difficult decisions required to adjust spending," a slide presented at the meeting read.

The state took control of the district this summer but has had monitors working with the district's central administration for more than 20 years.

In the last five years enrollment has declined by 1,000 students, meaning prior administrations should have reduced expenses by $19 million, according to the district's presentation.

Instead, spending grew by $27 million over the same five-year period.

Also alarming, Oberg said, is per pupil spending, which has soared to $27,500 - $9,000 more than the state average; far more than in Newark, Jersey City, and Trenton, and gaining on Asbury Park, which spends $28,000 per student, the highest in the state but for little Avalon.

Camden has already imposed a spending freeze and continues to look for reductions before the budget is presented to the public.

The budget gap will likely result in at least some personnel reductions, the district has said.

At Monday night's meeting, Nicolosi said the district will also look at reallocating money to early childhood education, improving school facilities, coaching, and support for teachers and technology in the classroom.

The district also presented the findings of a special-education audit by Susan Beal, now a consultant, formerly a district special education administrator.

In Camden, 19 percent of students are in special education programs, with 451 more seats available.

Currently, there's a ratio of nine students for every one special education teacher.

Beal determined that of the 125 special class aide positions, "19 are not required to meet statutes nor student safety and security." She said the district could merge and consolidate at every grade level some of the 49 special class programs available to students.

Beal also encouraged more inclusion. The state suggests 48 percent of special education students be included in general education more than 80 percent of the day. In Camden 30 percent of students are included in general education for that long.

The audit also determined that too many special education students do not attend their home school, which is recommended.

This year, 795 of the 1,501 students in special education programs attended their home school and 706 students attended other school programs. "It is optimal for special education students to attend school with their neighborhood peers when reasonable," Beal wrote in her report.

In other business:

An anti-bullying assessment at all 26 schools, studied harassment, intimidation, and bullying as required by state law. The district as a whole scored a 46 out of 75 on the self-assessment, and individual school scores will be posted on the district website Tuesday. "There is work we have to do," Nicolosi said.

The award for district teacher of the year went to Rebecca Rodriguez who teaches first grade at Cramer Elementary.

The Camden boys and Woodrow Wilson girls basketball teams were recognized for their success this season. Wilson won the state title and senior Chanelle Perry became one of only 23 girls in New Jersey to score more than 2,000 points in her career.

The Camden boys basketball team was recognized for its trip to the state championship, where it lost to Newark Tech. Andrew Stevens, the city's first ever wrestling state champion, received a standing ovation from the crowd.

The board also remembered Audrey Sunkett, a teacher at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, who died. Sunkett worked for the district for 40 years.


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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