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Hard Questions, Heartfelt Concern Abound at Camden Schools Forum

About 200 turn out to offer suggestions as state officials detail takeover plans.

Education Commissioner Chris Cerf fielding a question at Camden meeting.
Education Commissioner Chris Cerf fielding a question at Camden meeting.

In one of the first public tests of Gov. Chris Christie’s plans for taking over Camden schools, about 200 people filled a community hall last night to ask questions and air concerns about what state control will bring.

Perhaps most noteworthy was that more than a few of those on hand asked for help.

The meeting was attended by state officials heading up the intervention plan, led by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf and his top staff in Camden.

Mayor Dana Redd played host. She did not hide the fact that she supports the state intervention even though it was her board appointees who led the district for the last two years.

The audience – a mix of city residents, district teachers and others -- had plenty of pointed questions, with some taking shots at Redd’s leadership and others expressing concerns about charter schools steadily replacing the district schools.

The comments were hardly ringing endorsements of the state’s plans, either, with some sharply critical of Cerf and what they see as his and Christie’s broader political agenda to privatize public education.

But speaker after speaker also cited deep problems in the schools and the city as a whole, with one teacher describing what she called the “rushing rapids” that children face every day in a city plagued by high crime and poverty.

A parent said basic supplies aren’t provided and a few teachers said much the same about their own classrooms, too.

This was in a district where parents were among those who first brought the Abbott v. Burke school-equity case 30 years ago – a landmark case that brought hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding to the district as a whole but has had a less-visible impact in individual classrooms.

Even an officer of the district’s teachers union wasn’t so much against the state’s intervention as much as pleading that teachers and residents be given a real say in the process.

“Camden residents and the Camden Education Association must be assured they’ll have a strong voice, and that voice will be expected,” said Carmen Stokes, a parent of Camden school graduates and second vice president of the union.

Others called on the state to look at the impact of poverty among city residents and at how money is spent in the schools.

Debbie Carter, a teacher at Yorkship Elementary School, pleaded for state officials to not ignore what teachers and city residents have to say.

“Can you promise you will make good for the children of Camden?” she said to Cerf.

“I will make that promise,” Cerf answered.

Cerf mostly listened, but spoke several times to directly address questions. He dismissed claims that corporations were aiming to make money off the Camden schools, and he defended the state’s action as necessary.

But when several people asked about the spread of charter schools in the city -- and the expectation there will be many more under the state’s control -- Cerf stepped away from his usual refrain about how they outperform traditional public schools statewide.

“It absolutely right that when you look at the numbers (in Camden), they are thoroughly unimpressive,” he said. “The student outcomes here have not met the high bar we expect of them.”

But Cerf also said that the administration has held charter schools ever more accountable, and cited the seven charters schools he has either closed or not renewed.

“We take accountability extremely seriously and, quite frankly, I wish we had the same level of accountability for traditional schools,” he said.

The takeover of Camden schools still has a legal process to run, with the state now in court going through an administrative law review of its plans, as required under the law.

The local school board initially had until this week to challenge the action and was granted an extension until May 1. But few expect an outright challenge as much as some specific concerns, especially with the board made up of Redd appointees.

The mayor stressed that there would be more public meetings, including two next Monday and Thursday. Cerf said he, too, will hold meetings with teachers, parents and students.

Some in the audience said they wished the state had held those meetings before announcing a takeover – not after.

“Where he should have started was in calling the teachers and the parents,” said Rosemary Jackson, the last audience member to speak. “And then I would have thought it was sincere.”

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