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State Schools Takeover: All Quiet on the Camden Front

Local board signs consent decree, last step is state board approval.

For all of the melodrama that went with Gov. Chris Christie’s March announcement that the state planned to take control of Camden public schools, the culmination of those plans is generating fewer decibels and taking place more behind the scenes.

The State Board of Education is expected to act next Wednesday on the consent agreement reached between the district and the Christie administration, with few predicting much of a debate after the district’s board acquiesced to the intervention.

The state board’s approval is the last requirement before the administration's new role would officially start on June 25, three days after the last day of this school year.

Still, the subdued lead-up to the takeover -- the state’s strongest possible intervention in the case of low-performing schools -- is certainly in contrast to the loud debate that greeted previous takeovers in Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson in the late 1980s and 1990s.

To give some context, the board is expected to approve the Camden agreement at the same meeting at which Newark advocates are expected to testify against the state’s nearly 20-year control of that district. A lawsuit challenging the Newark takeover is also expected to be heard next week.

State Board President Arcelio Aponte yesterday said there will certainly be questions from the board about the Camden plans, but the lack of any resistance from the local board has clearly quieted the debate.

“Who knows what will happen Wednesday, but given the fact that that the local board announced it would not challenge the intervention, that certainly makes it a lot easier,” said Aponte. “Still, there should be a lot of questions about the next steps and the plans moving forward.”

Much of that work has quietly begun as well, as the administration begins planning for the transition. One of the first orders of business is the appointment of a new superintendent, and officials say the administration is actively interviewing candidates.

The state is using the same search firm that conducted the last superintendent search for the district, one cut short by the state’s takeover announcement.

State officials said the new search will include the three finalists in that previous search: Willingboro superintendent Ronald Taylor, former Oakland, CA, schools administrator Denise Saddler, and former Milwaukee chief academic officer Heidi Ramirez. The state board will need to approve the appointment as well.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said he was not putting a timetable on the hiring of a new superintendent, but noted that it will be the key step before significant changes in personnel and programs are put in place.

“We have generated a number of high-quality candidates, but we need to talk to all of them and engage the stakeholders,” he said. “It’s happening at a lightning pace, but I can’t predict when we’ll be done.”

Meanwhile, Emily Capella, a former Lenape School District superintendent and state monitor in Trenton, has led the review of the district’s school facilities -- specifically with the eye toward the schools opening next September under the state’s leadership.

In addition to state staff already in Camden and the department’s Camden County offices, about 10 other state Department of Education employees and consultants have been assigned to the city. They will be reviewing everything from enrollment patterns to finances to classroom supplies.

Among those leading the reviews are Photeine Anagnostopoulos, a special assistant to Cerf and former Newark budget chief, and Mindy Propper, a contracted employee with a background in education management.

“A tremendous amount of work is underway,” Cerf said yesterday. “I have been especially pleased in our engagement with the community and the stakeholders as we build a foundation for the next phase of the work.”

In one of its last acts before it becomes an advisory board once the state takes over, the local board -- with the state monitor’s approval -- on Tuesday approved $4 million in purchases of new textbooks and other supplies for next year.

Other reviews underway include the district’s special education services and early childhood programs, officials said. But many of the decisions will wait for the new superintendent, including personnel decisions about her administrative teams. The district is already expected to eliminate nearly 100 positions, including 76 teachers.

The district is also soon to begin negotiating new teachers and principal union contracts, both of which will expire by this summer. The takeover allows the state to end professional contracts, with legal counsel conducting those negotiations, as well as the state auditor.

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