Per-pupil spending is not the whole story in Camden

Assistant principal Gilbert Hardnett (rear) at Cooper's Poynt School with district director of communications Brendan Lowe (left) and district deputy superintendent Sean Gallagher.
Assistant principal Gilbert Hardnett (rear) at Cooper's Poynt School with district director of communications Brendan Lowe (left) and district deputy superintendent Sean Gallagher. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 14, 2014

Classrooms in Camden often come equipped with smartboards, iPads, and laptops. But in the same rooms teachers might lack access to a working printer, the tech support they need to use the smartboard, or a basic set of textbooks requested a year ago.

The contradictions are at the heart of Camden's financial problems, which boil down to one alarming fact: This district that graduates only 49 percent of its students spends more than nearly any other in the state educating them.

This school year Camden spent $27,500 per pupil, $9,000 more than the state average, to educate a district of 15,000 students, about 11,700 of them attending district public schools. Twenty-three of the district's 26 schools appear on the state's list of the 70 lowest-performing schools, but the city will spend almost as much per pupil in the current school year as the state's highest-spending districts, Avalon and Stone Harbor, spent in 2012-13. Camden made headlines earlier this year when the superintendent said only three high school students of the 882 who took the SAT in 2011-12 tested "college ready."

A budget review and interviews with former and current board members and state officials point to the costs associated with a high-poverty district, along with overstaffing, mismanagement, and an increase in charter school funding.

"There's no secret to how we got here," said former school board member Sean Brown, who served from 2010 to 2013. "There definitely was leadership failure going on, high management turnover, and a lot of things we had to spend money on."

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, says the per-pupil figures most often cited are misleading because they do not consider that it costs more to educate students in high-poverty districts. Forty-two percent of Camden residents live below the federal poverty line, and the average household income is $26,000.

Using a weighted per-pupil formula that takes into account special-needs costs, Camden spent $11,034 for the 2013-14 school year, only slightly higher than the state weighted per-pupil average of $10,749, according to ELEC.

Seventy percent of the district's proposed $360 million budget for 2014-15 would go for personnel.

The district, which has lost 1,000 students over the last five years to charter or out-of-district schools, has gained administrators and staff, increasing spending 10 percent and creating a student-employee ratio of 4-1 and a student-teacher ratio of 9-1. Philadelphia's student-employee ratio is 8-1.

Of 2,700 district jobs, only 46 percent are held by teachers. School-based non-teachers such as aides and maintenance employees account for 40 percent and the central office for 13 percent, according to district figures.

While some departments are overstaffed, others are shorthanded. In a first-grade general education classroom earlier this month, 11 pupils sat cross-legged on the floor around a teacher who read to them while a second teacher, also assigned to the classroom, sat in one of eight empty desks.

Meanwhile, at one of Camden's high schools, special-education staffing can be so tight, teachers not certified in special education say they have had to fill in.

Similar problems are reported when it comes to school materials.

The district spent $5 million last school year on new textbooks and technology.

Yet some teachers still have not received textbooks, and others have turned to online fund-raising sites for basic needs such as carpet for a reading corner and novels for a high school literature class.

"We don't have a lack of resources here. We have an improper allocation of those resources," the district's state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has said.

The most divisive expenditure in the district's budget - and one of the most costly - is the $72 million it would transfer to charter and renaissance (district-charter hybrid) schools next year, contributing to per-pupil costs.

The transfer funds increased $17 million to make way for three additional renaissance schools expected to open in the fall. Two are still waiting for state approval.

"There is this perception we're taking resources out of district schools, and it couldn't be further from the truth," Rouhanifard said. "Our per-pupil goes up when families go to charter schools. We think of it as an investment. It's a very fair formula here."

Given the district's $75 million revenue shortfall heading into the next school year, it has announced it will lay off 400 people, about 250 of them teachers. That would be a 20 percent reduction in the teaching staff and 32 percent cut to administrative staff.

Rouhanifard has said he will downsize the central office (and one board member even suggested selling the costly, outdated administration building), but he has increased central office staff with his transition team and added more than a dozen teacher trainers and evaluators, many with six-figure salaries.

State law requires teachers be evaluated three times a year but does not mandate that new hires perform the evaluations.

"A lot of money is paid for keeping people on and giving them professional development to make them better, where in a business model, they'd be fired," said Barbara Coscarella, the board's finance chair.

Coscarella said that for years the district used one-time surplus funds (stemming from a Supreme Court ruling in 2011 and federal stimulus funding) to cover recurring costs. That money is nearly gone now. Making matters more difficult, she said, is that the board - appointed, not elected - has little financial knowledge.

"Most of the members by their own admission know very little, and I've asked for years can we have a seminar or tutorial to get us to better understand how the budget works. Nothing's happened."

A state fiscal monitor has worked with the Camden district since 2006, when a state audit uncovered a $10 million deficit and 35 improper financial procedures.

Department of Education spokesman Mike Yaple said the district maintains most of its spending autonomy even when a monitor is in place.

"The local school board and the district's superintendent have discretion over policy and spending decisions," he wrote in an e-mail. "The state monitor ensures that the local school board and local school officials follow proper procedures, adhere to state laws and regulations, and meet necessary fiscal protocols."

Second to personnel spending is building and maintenance, which cost the district $23 million this year and is budgeted for $18 million next year. In Camden, 10 buildings are nearing or past 100 years old.

Administrative leadership has been a revolving door, with four superintendents in two years, including one who was absent for nearly a year.

When subject-area supervisors were laid off two years ago, there was no one to keep tabs on how many teachers were on the school's roster, former board finance chair Theo Spencer said.

"I think a lot of times they didn't know until budget time what was going on," he said.

Spencer, who served on the board from 2007 to 2010, said the district almost always acquiesced when the state pointed to failures and suggested remedies, which sometimes meant duplicated programs.

"If the state made a suggestion, the district would follow because it didn't want the state to interfere," Spencer said. "The result is the district runs so many programs, it's impossible to know what's working and what's not working. They were established to help, but like so many things, you just never really know what's working."

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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