A Win for the People of Camden, and a Loss for Voter Suppression

Camden has America’s least democratic school district. The city has an appointed board of education, that appointed board can’t effect change because the board is “advisory” while the district is under state takeover, and with the rapid increase of renaissance and charter seats most students aren’t in the district anyway. Camden residents have extremely little power to enact educational changes in their city. But that may be changing. Today, a number of Camden residents and organizations won a critical victory along the path of returning to an elected board of ed. A court ruled with parents Jeniffer Alvira, Mo’Neke Ragsdale, Jeannette Melendez, and Ronsha Dickerson alongside supporting organizations like the Camden County NAACP, Save Camden Public Schools and the Unity Community Center of South Jersey that there ought to have been an election in 2014 to decide if the Camden Board of Ed was elected, and that that election now needs to happen

The nitty gritty is this: in 2010 the MRERA (the legislation that created a municipal take over of Camden, but also provided $175 million in funds for redevelopment in the early 2000s) was amended to include a city vote in 2014 on whether the school district should elect its board of education. As Dr. Keith Benson, a local educator, parent and now the president of the CEA has noted, when the time came for that vote, the state (alongside the district and state) used education resources to fight against that vote in court.

Remember this post from LAST MONTH when I was exposed how Paymon Rouhanifard and this lawyer William Tambussi were…

Posted by Keith Eric on Tuesday, April 24, 2018

That sounds bad. And it is. But it’s also a pattern in Camden. In 2002, Camden faced a municipal takeover — and its residents lost the ability to vote. In 2012, Camden disbanded its city police department — and its residents lost the ability to vote. In 2013, Camden faced a state takeover of its school district — and its residents lost the ability to vote. We already know that this intersects directly with race; Oluwole and Green (2009) have shown that such takeovers happen disproportionately in communities of color. We’re now learning that these some of  these Camden takeovers illegally stripped people of the right to vote. First, the NJ Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to deny Camden residents the ability to vote on the dissolution of its police force though the ruling came too late to put the issue back on the ballot. And now, Camden residents have won a similar victory — that they should have had the right to vote on whether their school board is elected.

Let’s be clear. There are genuine debates to have about policy in cities such as Camden. But this is a fundamental justice issue. No community should be systematically stripped of its ability to vote along racial lines. This was done with impunity by leaders here in Camden in ways that courts have now repeatedly struck down as illegal. 

Camden has a long way to go to become a functioning democracy. This ruling will likely be challenged further in court. Then, assuming the ruling stands, there will a vote on whether the district should return to an elected school board. Even if that resolution passes, school board elections are complicated and often come with compromises and uphill battles of their own, as Newark is discovering. And the Camden School District radically changed under state takeover in ways that will affect the city for decades regardless of whether the school board is elected or appointed.

But this was step one. Stop the illegal suppression of black and brown votes in Camden, and let residents choose what kind of system they want. Now, time to get started on step two.

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