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The Man Keeping an Eye on Camden Schools

As Christie talks about Camden possibly being next in his school reform push, a department veteran is in place.

For more than 20 years, Mike Azzara has been New Jersey’s resident troubleshooter when it comes to schools in the biggest trouble.

A longtime state Department of Education (DOE) employee, Azzara served a stint as assistant commissioner. He has also filled a variety of fiscal monitoring and oversight roles in the state-operated districts of Paterson, Jersey City and Newark -- at one point all three at the same time..

Now he’s in Camden, having just renewed his contract to serve as the state monitor in a district that Gov. Chris Christie said last week may be next in line for his forceful reform agenda.

"I guess I go to districts where nobody else wants to go," Azzara said yesterday, only partly in jest.

Camden in the Crosshairs

At a press conference last week in which Christie announced his appointment of a new superintendent in Newark -- the current overhaul project for the administration – the governor said he has his sights set on Camden schools as well.

"The commissioner and I, in the course of the next couple of months, are going to have announcements regarding initiatives we want to pursue in Camden," Christie said. "I think they will have significant community support and will help bring change to a school system that really, really needs it."

What form those initiatives will take is unclear. Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf spoke broadly about a mix of programs that could include charter school partnerships, but stressed nothing is firm at this point. The district is not state-operated, either, he said, putting the state in a different role than with the three others.

That’s where Azzara comes in, one of five state monitors dispatched by the education department across New Jersey in a specified statutory position aimed to clean up the finances for some of New Jersey’s toughest school systems. The other four with state monitors are Asbury Park, Trenton, Garfield and Pleasantville.

At this point, Azzara said much of Camden’s long-term fate rests with the state’s oversight process for all public schools, named the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC).

Camden has completed its QSAC self-evaluation, the first step in a lengthy process that involves more than 300 checklist items. The self-evaluation is under the review of the state’s county offices.

How the district fares in the end will determine the state’s level of intervention, if any. The process evaluates the district in the categories of instruction, personnel, governance, finance and operations, with the state then having the option in each category of demanding improvement plans, installing further state staff, or "full intervention," in which the state makes the decisions.

(The Camden schools have just come out of oversight of another kind, as part of the municipal takeover under former Gov. Jon Corzine, in which the state appointed a third of the district’s nine-member board. That ended a year ago, as Corzine left office.)

Azzara is serving as a state monitor in a district of 13,000 students and 34 schools. He reviews contracts, budgets and anything else financial. First appointed in 2009 and reporting to the commissioner, Azzara said he is paid $93 an hour, for 30 hours a week.

The Culture of Camden

"I’m seeing incremental progress in Camden, but there’s a lot of embedded problems," he said yesterday. "It's almost a culture you have to change."

For example, Azzara spoke of a professional services contract-bidding process that often ended without selecting the low bidder. He said fixing that helped save the district $600,000 a year in insurance costs, and cut auditing costs in half.

Outsourcing food services has all but eliminated a $3.5 million deficit, Azzara said, and the closing of two schools last year and four more next year could lead to another $5 million in savings. The district’s overall budget is $350 million, almost 90 percent of which paid by the state.

But as satisfying as his work has been, Azzara said the finances are just a start in solving the district's ills.

"The biggest problem is still student achievement, and that will take a monumental change in culture," he said. "Putting in programs is one thing, but delivering them properly is another. There are a lot of old habits and past practices to get over."

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