Camden schools to lay off 206 teachers

Resident Eulisis Delgado is escorted from the lectern as he addresses Camden's school board. Hecklers had earlier prevented School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard from completing his presentation.
Resident Eulisis Delgado is escorted from the lectern as he addresses Camden's school board. Hecklers had earlier prevented School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard from completing his presentation. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 14, 2014

In what officials called a "devastating but necessary" round of decisions, 272 Camden City School District employees - 206 of them teachers - will be laid off at the end of the school year.

The district announced the cuts at a packed and emotional school board meeting Monday night. Top administrative officials warned in February that the reductions would be coming as part of a plan to bridge a $75 million revenue gap heading into the 2014-15 school year.

"These are really difficult, devastating decisions to communicate and implement, but unfortunately they are necessary, and we're deeply optimistic about the future of the district," Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said.

More than 200 people attended the meeting at the H.B. Wilson Family School, most dressed in red, some holding signs and chanting, others silently flipping through a thick human resources packet searching for their names under the "reappointments section." Many ran out of the auditorium in tears.

One-on-one notifications will occur Tuesday, but anyone who attended the meeting, or who looked at the report online, could find out his or her employment status.

In the hallway outside the auditorium where the crowd chanted "Stand Up, Camden, Stand Up," Cathy Burry, a fourth-grade teacher who will lose her job at Sharp Elementary, wept as friends and coworkers comforted her.

"They gutted the district," she said. "It's so sad. I love my kids. I want to be a teacher at Sharp."

Burry has tenure and has worked at the school for five years. It was a similar story for many teachers, who cried on phone calls home or composed themselves in bathrooms and hallways away from the meeting.

Inside, Rouhanifard tried to calm the crowd. "I understand there's a lot of emotion. You may shout back at me tonight," Rouhanifard said, barely audible over the shouting. "I want to make immensely clear there are many people who will be potentially losing their positions with us who care deeply about the students of Camden. This is not an indictment of their efforts."

The chants of "Save Our Schools!" and hecklers, some of whom demanded Rouhanifard take a pay cut himself, prevented him from getting through his presentation explaining the layoffs. He instead called for the meeting to go directly to public comment.

Layoff determinations were based on seniority and feedback from principals, projected enrollment for next year, and current class-by-class enrollment, the district said. Evaluation results or qualitative measures were not taken into account, and cannot be under state law, Rouhanifard said.

Union president Robert Farmer called for solidarity and said he wanted to make sure the process was fair.

"We have sat down over and over and over again, and tried to make this impact the least teacher-oriented as possible. We settled for our contractual agreement to use the seniority process. From what I'm hearing from some people, the process didn't work," he said.

The district cut $29 million through non-personnel reductions and $28 million through personnel cuts. The layoffs translate to a 45 percent reduction in the central office and a 15 percent reduction of all school-based vacancies and positions.

Before the layoffs, there were about 2,770 positions in the district, about 46 percent of them instructional.

In April, the district notified 94 people in administration that their positions would be eliminated.

All 23 technical coordinators were laid off, but many will have the option of bumping to other positions, based on state guidelines. All technology services will be centralized, Rouhanifard said, and then deployed out to the district's schools.

Of the 206 teachers laid off, about 60 are in elective and vocational categories. Many of those in core subject categories are also some of the district's younger teachers with the least seniority. Forty elementary school teachers were laid off along with 18 guidance counselors. Thirty-seven of the 272 laid off have union retention rights to other positions.

On average, each school will retain at least one art teacher, guidance counselor, librarian, music teacher, and nurse.

Andre Brown, 33, the drama teacher at Camden High School for three years, and Callie Anastas, 27, a math teacher at Camelot School, scanned a copy of the report for their names during the meeting. Brown was on the nonrenewal list. Anastas kept her job.

"There's relief, but then you look around and watch these phenomenal teachers who have great evaluation scores, who are so dedicated, and they're not coming back. It's not right," Anastas said.

Athletic directors, dropout prevention officers, social workers, custodians, psychologists, school safety officers, speech therapists, and special education teachers were not affected.

The district will hire additional community school coordinators as well as prekindergarten teachers in order to staff prekindergarten programs, whose enrollment increased 17 percent for the next school year.

Public comments at the meeting were scathing, with many speakers criticizing the notification process - teachers received letters during teacher appreciation week. State guidelines require notices go out before May 15.

Others criticized the plan to bring Mastery and Uncommon Schools to Camden, pending state approval, along with KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, slated to open in the fall. Speakers blamed the district's financial solution partly on charter school transfer funds, which will be $72 million next year.

Karen Pazienza, 52, a first-grade teacher at Catto Elementary School for 11 years, said, "I understand reductions have to be made. I don't understand why a teacher who is wanted by their principal, colleagues, who has perfect attendance, will wake up without a job tomorrow. Those children deserve me as a teacher."

Outside the auditorium, still booming with shouts and clapping, Pazienza walked to her car dabbing at her eyes. "Every day I wake up, and I give everything to those students. I've ignored my own children at times," she said. "It's shocking all of a sudden to get a letter on Friday, and then to find out on Monday, your career is gone."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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