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.
The night following the Camden City School District’s monthly meeting, I found it enormously difficult to sleep – so much so, that at 3:42 am I am awake writing this Op/Ed. Comments made by the Acting State Superintendent Katrina McCombs regarding the fiscal condition of the Camden City School District (CCSD) at March’s monthly Advisory Board meeting echoed in my mind, robbing of a peaceful night’s slumber…
“$27M Budget deficit” and “If needed help doesn’t come from the (New Jersey) Department of Education, we could be facing mass layoffs and building closures” were the comments that reverberated in my brain.
I had questions that needed answers, like: “how could a school district that was run by the State of New Jersey since 2013 be facing such a dire fiscal reality today?” and “when did such massive deficit begin? Ms. McCombs stated the debt was in place before her arrival to her current post and her administration had initiated efforts to close the gap, but still, here they remain $27M in the red.
Camden is not alone in this. Paterson Public Schools, having recently emerged from nearly three decades of state takeover, recently announced they too have a massive deficit in the amount $23M and would likely have to lay off approximately 232 staff members to close the gap. My deepest fear is that Camden will face the same reality here. I have long been a critic of the prior superintendent and his leadership of this great District chiefly due to his willingness to see our public schools suffer at the expense of the state-imposed renaissance schools (which only exist in Camden.) Upon his arrival, two rounds of layoffs of essential school staff numbering north of 400 people, the closure of eight public schools, and the result of the state’s 2018 audit of CCSD under his stewardship where some matters were referred to the Criminal Division, at least substantiate my vocal and longstanding concerns about the prior administration. And the District’s announcement of a $27M deficit further indicates that my, and many other’s concerns about the previous administration were, at least, credible.
Nonetheless, here we are. With real reasons to be encouraged about the current direction of Camden’s public schools, the announcement by District about its fiscal situation, and conveyance of possible steps to close the budget remind me of two things: that politics in Trenton bears an enormous responsibility for the difficulty of CCSD is facing today, and that our schools cannot be alone in bearing the brunt of what may be a painful reality and painful future.
Despite having a number of charter schools already established, in 2012, Trenton and then-Governor Christie decided to force on to Camden, and it’s budget, a host of corporate-operated charter schools, renaissance schools, numbering as many as fifteen. As such, Camden is the only school district in the state responsible for financially supporting public schools (19), charter schools (11), and renaissance schools (11 at present). In essence, Trenton lawmakers made Camden responsible for supporting three distinct school districts simultaneously. As much as the oft-repeated line, “money follows the student” is shouted, the common understanding of that phrase is incorrect. Lawmakers in Trenton has not passed a law that demands that following October 15th, the date schools’ official attendance is reported to the state for funding, that money follows the student at all. As such, following October 15th, as charters and renaissance schools already secured funding for students on their roster, our public schools receive a steady flow of students transferring in from non-district schools, without the correlating funds. Thus, our public schools, literally, have to educate more students throughout the year with less financial resources.
Therefore, we, like many in the Camden community, are calling for whatever pain that must be endured by CCSD, is equally and proportionally disbursed among public, charter, and renaissance schools. Our public-school children and staff should not be the only segment of the Camden education sector to suffer for the poor planning, of possible sabotage by a prior state superintendent, previous governor, and Trenton lawmakers. We know the renaissance schools are dramatically under-enrolled despite political shenanigans to boost their enrollment. We know there are entire charter schools in the city that have less 200 students. We also know that despite Camden being a nine-square-mile city, and a student population of roughly 15,000 students, 7,500 of whom attend our 19 city schools, our school transportation budget ballooned to over $18M this past year due to charter and renaissance schools providing bus transportation for their students that is largely unavailable to our own public-school children. Further, it is quite noticeable that the newest facilities all seem to be exclusively benefitting non-public schools.
Such an imbalance in favor and fortune cannot continue. If CCSD is indeed in the red $27M, and staff layoffs and building closures are “on the table” as possible options to close the gap, in the interest of fairness and equity, such layoffs and closures must be felt across the spectrum of Camden school types – not only Camden’s public schools and our students. Our students and educators have had to sacrifice far too much: shrunken curriculum, less after-school programming and extra-curricular activities, fewer guidance counselors and supports, less, less, less… This, in good conscience, cannot continue.
While it is readily apparent that Camden schools have an ally in Governor Murphy, a supportive Commissioner of Education in Dr. Repollet, and an acting superintendent working on sorting through the mess handed down to her from her predecessor, it is also apparent that whatever consequence our public schools and our children must endure, must also be visited upon the non-district schools our District is charged with financially supporting. Here, equal and collective sacrifice is the only fair path forward.
Photo: Camden student protest