Keith E. Benson is an educator, President of the Camden Education Association, a Camden parent, and an adjunct professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. He is the author of Education Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising: Public Education and Urban Redevelopment in Camden, NJ. Promoted by Rosi.
In the midst of the headlines identifying some of the shortcomings of renaissance schools in terms of staffing and enrollment, what got easily missed were the most important parts. First, and foremost, the audit demonstrated how the Paymon Rouhanifard administration wasted, and possibly embezzled millions of dollars meant to go to our city’s schools and school children. So flagrant were the financial misdoings of the District under Rouhanifard’s direction that “certain transactions have been referred to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice”. For example, many people aren’t aware that the District under Rouhanifard’s direction paid to send two staffers in the Analytics Department, a division that did not exist prior to Rouhanifard’s arrival, to Harvard! Yes, you read that correctly. The District paid for two individuals working in a created District department to go to Harvard. But that is just the tip of the potentially criminal iceberg…The audit showed that the District paid a TNTP consultant between “$150-200” per hour for consulting that no one can verify took place. The audit also identified further peculiarities pertaining to financing over the course of the Rouhanifard years but did not identify specific organizations and individuals because this is a potentially criminal matter.
For 5 years, Paymon Rouhanifard had full reign to use the District’s taxpayer dollars as he saw fit. He hired cronies from his days at NYDOE and TFA to six-figure starting salaries including the daughter of the Chairman of NBC Universal, Governor Christie’s second cousin and the daughter-in-law to former presidential candidate Howard Dean. Rouhanifard abused the financial liberties afforded him while closing our schools, and giving both schools and students away to corporate charters. And while that was taking place, our all-appointed board of education sat idle and silent. Never asking so much of about expenditures, spending priorities, or the results behind what the taxpayers paid for.
There is one still-orbiting spending misadventure from the Rouhanifard years that yet remains – Camden Enrollment. Camden Enrollment is a third-party middleman, a corporate-charter foundation-supported initiative that Rouhanifard brought to Camden the same time the renaissance schools were established, to funnel students into renaissance schools and cap district enrollment. Rouhanifard gifted Camden Enrollment with over $1 Million dollars from 2015-2019, in addition to all of the money Camden Enrollment took in from outside foundations and philanthropies. While the Camden community today is becoming more aware of the intent behind Camden Enrollment and the corruption within it, the good news is their contract is up this year.
By all accounts, Camden Enrollment should be ceasing operations from our school District later this year this with little success to point to. Renaissance schools at the end of last year finished with 3,711 students. To put in perspective, according to Mastery Charter’s initial Hope Act application, Mastery Charter alone was projecting to have 4,600 students – this is despite Rouhanifard giving Mastery Charter 4 district schools. UnCommon and KIPP’s number are also well below projections. The reality is, parents are not fleeing Camden’s public schools as local politicians and Rouhanifard frequently and falsely repeated. The renaissance schools gained the students they have simply because Rouhanifard closed public schools and gave them away with students already attending school in those buildings. Simply, when public schools stay open, we don’t lose students.
So as we residents, educators and students begin to try to regroup from the years of possible financial malfeasance that spanned the now-departed Rouhanifard years, under Rouhanifard’s leadership, there are reasons to be optimistic. Our residents fought for and won the right to democratically elect school board members in November after nearly two decades; we have a new District leader who by all indication is committed to academic excellence and the survival and sustaining of our public schools, and the end of Camden Enrollment’s contract with the District is near. Our schools are deservedly getting better press and all of our schools stayed open protecting all of our city’s residents from predatory redevelopment. Finally, our educators are finding more way to develop deeper, more meaningful bonds with fellow city workers and the Camden community we serve. So while the state’s audit of Rouhanifard’s leadership showed a glimpse of the dark days of the past, today’s realities portend a much brighter future for our city’s schools and our community tomorrow.