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Christie, Cerf & Co. Take the Reins of Camden Public Schools

Governor vows to be sensitive to local board and community, but is ready to 'exert whatever control' is called for.

Gov. Chris Christie, Camden Mayor Dana Redd, and Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie, Camden Mayor Dana Redd, and Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

It’s called an “intervention” instead of a “takeover,” and there was lots of talk yesterday about partnership and cooperation. But make no mistake, Gov. Chris Christie and his administration are primed to exercise full control over Camden public schools.

Christie came to the city yesterday morning to announce that the state would “intervene” in the long-troubled district, most notably by stepping in to appoint a new superintendent.

Unlike the state’s more-hostile takeovers of its three largest districts -- Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson -- in the late 1980s and 1990s, Christie stood with community leaders and said this was about building up the capacity and capability.

“We will exert whatever control we need to exert, but our plan is to be in partnership with the folks here, to bring some different approaches, and to empower them to do things differently as well,” he said.

But the process will start with the administration flexing its considerable muscle -- courtesy of the state's monitoring law -- according to the plan submitted with its administrative order.

For instance, the administration said it intends to not only appoint a superintendent, but also to overhaul the upper echelon of the district’s central office and start fresh on how that hierarchy is organized. “A new organizational structure will be instituted upon state intervention,” the plan reads.

In addition, the administration will exert “expedited” powers for removing principals who do not perform well on evaluations over the next year, as also authorized by the law.

And the administration plans to bring in “highly skilled professionals” to work in the district in specific areas, starting with personnel, governance, and special education. That’s on top of the state’s existing Regional Achievement Center staff that has already been ensconced in the district’s headquarters.

While the state has no extra powers in terms of teacher or principal contracts, their negotiations are an immediate concern: the principals' contract has already expired, the teachers' are up this summer.

The details are in the State Intervention Plan included in the administrative order filed by state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa yesterday with the state’s Office of Controversies and Disputes, the first step in a legal process in which the local board has a right to challenge the intervention.

Under the law, the matter is then likely to go to an administrative law judge who will hold a hearing before making a ruling to state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

At that point, Cerf will proceed to the state Board of Education to ask it to approve the “full intervention” status, at which time it would become official.

On Schedule

Christie and Cerf yesterday said that process could take six to eight weeks, if all goes as planned. The one entity that can challenge the intervention and slow the process at this point is the local board. But while roiled by the prospect it would be relegated to advisory status under the intervention -- one member immediately quit -- there did not seem to be concerted opposition, either.

One reason for this situation is that the entire board is appointed by the mayor, and Mayor Dana Redd stood with Christie yesterday. But in one of the more emotional moments of the press conference held in the library of the Woodrow Wilson High School, board president Kathryn Blackshear acted almost resigned as she said she had thought and prayed about this day for much of her decade on the board.

"I'm in the toughest spot I've ever been in my life," Blackshear said. "But I knew this day was coming. Always knew this day was coming."

Blackshear also pointed out that the state has long exerted strong influence in the district, including a state financial monitor who can veto practically any board action. That monitor, Michael Azzara, is expected to stay on in the job, the state’s plan said.

Christie himself conceded that the state’s history of school takeovers in its three largest districts had been mixed, at best, with all three starting to be counted in decades and not years.

The governor also maintained that his approach would be different, in part by the power of his own personality and management style.

“This is the first that I have been part of, and no question it will be done differently,” he said. “I have my own style, and this will done quite differently than it has been in the past.”

When asked why now, Christie and Cerf said it was long past time for the district to reform itself, and that the plan had been in the works for about the four weeks, following a damning evaluation in August.

The numbers in that report and others published since are striking, with barely a third of elementary students passing state proficiency tests and fewer than half of high school students graduating, according to the state.

The current board’s imminent hiring of a new superintendent may have helped speed the state’s move, with the board interviewing candidates through the weekend and even yesterday. Cerf said those candidates would be considered, but he made clear that the administration would be adding its own names to the list.

The growing influence of charter schools has clearly played a role as well. If all the approved schools open, the district could have as many as third of its public school enrollment in charters next fall, the highest ratio in the state. And that doesn’t count the five new Renaissance Schools slated to open in the next decade.

But the board has been cool lately to the Renaissance Schools, approving them to enter the district but already balking at sharing space.

Subdued Response

The reaction from outside the district yesterday was surprisingly quiet. State Senate President Steve Sweeney praised the move as long overdue, but he was one of the few legislators to even issue statements, pro or con.

The New Jersey Education Association’s president, Barbara Keshishian, issued a statement that urged local input in the process, while withholding judgment on the plan as a whole.

“It is always preferable to have public schools managed by local communities, and the citizens of Camden must be assured that they will continue to have a strong and respected voice in reforming a public school system that meets the needs of all Camden students,” Keshishian said.

State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), Christie’s Democratic challenger in the fall election, sent out her own statement that emphasized some of the same issues.

"The focus must be on ensuring that every child has the opportunity to receive an excellent public education,” she said. “The foundation for a strong public school system is an invested community, and real reform relies on local participation.

“To that end, I encourage the governor to listen to the concerns of parents and teachers in Camden, and make sure their voices are heard."

Christie was less combative than he can be in these situations, and while he said he would “call out” critics, he vowed that he also would listen to concerns.

‘I know this is a difficult reality for the community to confront,” he said to close the press conference. “But I come here in a spirit of cooperation and determination to make a difference in the lives of families and children in this city.”

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