Keith Eric Benson, who holds a doctoral degree in the field of Education, is an educator in Camden Public Schools, president of the Camden Education Association, and the father of a child in the city’s public schools. Our thanks to Keith for this post; he’s a longstanding critic of the state takeover and privatization of Camden education. We asked him to sum up Rouhanifard’s tenure and look forward toward what’s next. We follow Keith on Twitter at @KeithEricBenson – Promoted by Rosi
Yesterday, our Camden City Schools District Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard resigned, and will be stepping down effective June 30th of this year, one year shy of his current contract’s expiration date. As relieved as I, along with many other educators (including administrators), and community members are by this surprising news, only Rouhanifard knows why he arrived at this decision at this time. It is true the political grounds were shifting around him; a new Governor who has been steadfast in his support for ending state takeover and local control, a new Department of Education Commissioner who, by all accounts, is a strong proponent of public schools, a new mayor who has attended Camden public schools all his life, a pending court decision determining if city residents should have their right to vote for municipal board members returned in full for the first time since 2002, as well as a growing and increasingly unified effort between city education activists and our teachers union resisting Rouhanifard, all could have played a role in yesterday’s decision to step down – or not a role at all. Only he truly knows.
As one of Rouhanifard’s steadfast dissenters since 2013, I am writing for this union of dedicated educators, and as a Camden resident with a child in our public schools when I say, our critique of Rouhanifard was never about him as a person. I will publicly assert here as I have many times, Paymon Rouhanifard is extremely likable, engaging, personable, and intelligent. Few would around here would argue that, but that’s never been the issue. Rouhanifard has been the anti-Cami Anderson. Rather than overtly showing disrespect to residents, Rouhanifard had a way of making people feel heard, included, and like their concerns mattered in decisions – which is a skill. But Rouhanifard’s policies, and mandates were what drove my, and others’ critiques against both his actions and decisions.
The Superintendent closed eight public schools in five years, and in return forced the proliferation of corporate charters, aka “renaissance schools” in their stead. Neighborhood school buildings were unilaterally handed over, with the students in them, and their buildings leased to “renaissance” providers for pennies – all without meaningful public input. The Superintendent alone decided to use public District funds to pay the legal fees of William J. Tambussi, to argue in court to prevent residents from regaining their right to vote for their board of education. In essence Rouhanifard is paying to keep residents marginalized and disenfranchised. The Superintendent has knowingly understaffed our schools, put our school buildings at risk of permanent structural damage, established a “universal enrollment” system that tacitly, if not explicitly, advantages the enrollment growth of charter and “renaissance schools” at the expense of the neighborhood public schools. The critiques of Rouhanifard’s time here are biting, but they are true.
Some will point out the rise in graduation rates, decreasing in dropout rates, and rising test scores as a sign that Rouhanifard has been a success as a superintendent. And to that, context matters. In 2015, the exit exam, High School Proficiency Assessment, was ended by the NJDOE as a prerequisite for graduation which meant a previous state-imposed barrier to graduation for our students ceased to exist – which is a good thing. Subsequently, graduation rose in Camden much like urban districts across the state and country. Further, Rouhanifard initiated a shift in our District’s grade scale. Before his arrival, any grade lower than a 65 constituted a failing grade, where before, like most districts, grades and averages under 60 constituted failing. Shortly into the Superintendent’s term, he returned the failure standard to where it was initially to grades and averages under 60. In that what most strongly correlates with dropping-out is grade retention, the alteration in grade scale created a structure where more children on the borderline are passing classes rather than failing them, and not being forced to repeat. This thereby reduces dropping-out and increases graduation rates – both of which are good things for our children. But to use those two truths to indicate a successful tenure at the helm of Camden’s public schools is to ignore the fact that those single adjustments contributed mightily to the positive numbers he and his proponents are touting.
The fact that the superintendent is resigning represents an exciting possibility that Camden will have, a leader that believes strongly in the mission of public education, and how important public schools are to their respective communities and our children. For five years, our District and community was forced to endure through a leader who operated as an authoritarian with total power, whose sole mission it was to close public schools and grow an imposed system of “renaissance schools”. For five years, our city has not had a superintendent who was singularly focused on improving what needed fixing in our schools or maximizing what was working for the betterment of district’s 8,000 children. That opportunity is upon us now. With phenomenal educators like Ms. Katrina McCombs who will be assuming the position in an interim capacity, Dr. Debra Sheard in Rahway, Dr. Davida Coe-Brockington currently heading Creative Arts Morgan Village School, Dr. Doris Carpenter who fought valiantly to save Camden High School, it is plain to see that willing and qualified educators are readily available. The potential for real progress is here for the first time in 5 years, and that possibility brings a smile to my, and many others’ faces.
In the final analysis however, it is important to underscore our concern with Rouhanifard has never been based in the personal. We, activists and residents and educators, simply want what is best, educationally, for this community and its children. Insofar that the Rouhanifard repeatedly reminded the community and educators, that his priorities were outside of our core values, he was met with resistance, much like anyone else would have. We must now focus on rebuilding what was dismantled, and that will take enormous amounts of commitment, energy, and work. CEA, as partners with the community and its residents, is here for it, and committed to working in the best interests of those we serve every step of the way.
So Rouhanifard is stepping down…we still have lots of work to do.
Photo: Chris Christie and Paymon Rouhanifard, on the day 5 years ago that he was named Camden Superintendent. [Tim Larsen, Governor’s office]