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Major Renovations, Not Replacement, Unveiled for Iconic High School in Camden

Announcement of $50M initiative provides photo-op for Gov. Christie, but governor takes no questions about turnaround on building upgrade

camden high school
Camden High School.

In 2011, the $100 million plan to replace Camden High School was among the prime exhibits in Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to effectively shut down the state’s court-ordered school construction program for two years -- while he overhauled standards and practices.

Three years later, Christie was standing in the school Tuesday to not just revive the initiative -- as a much less extensive renovation rather than replacement -- but also to scrub history a bit and give his own political persona a burnishing.

For a governor who had all but stopped any new projects on the state’s most decrepit schools until last year, yesterday was a day to celebrate the power of quality school buildings to promote student achievement.

He made no mention of the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke decision more than a decade ago that had ordered the statewide school construction effort on the very same premise.

“Unfortunately, this iconic place has fallen behind the quality of students who come here,” Christie said from inside the high school gym.

“What’s held them back is the building itself, not the quality of the students, not the quality of the teachers, not the interest of the parents,” he said. “An improved learning environment will lead to improved learning in the school, as well as improved teaching in the school.”

It was an easy event for the governor. He promised “at least $50 million” for renovations that are already authorized, and got to stand with his appointees to the newly state-controlled school district, as well as a supportive Democratic ally, Camden Mayor Dana Redd.

He took no questions from the press, nor did the head of the Schools Development Authority, Charles McKenna, the governor’s former chief counsel.

Most of the details were left to Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, whom Christie appointed in 2013. He said it would be up to two years before the project’s design was completed, first seeking to meet with the community to develop priorities. It could take up to another two years to finish the work.

The clear needs were renovations to the building’s heating system, roof and windows and a rewiring for technology and online learning that is sorely lacking.

Rouhanifard said there could be some new construction to accommodate plans to divide the high school into four distinct “independent learning communities,” including one focused on career and technical education. The announcement of the career programs especially drew applause from the invitation-only audience.

“Today is a long time coming, that I can say for sure,” Rouhanifard said, recalling his first visit to the high school in 2013. “Students are perceptive, and they were telling me implicitly and at times explicitly that we as adults could be doing a lot more to help them.”

The revival of the project is not wholly unexpected, as the SDA had announced in 2012 that it would be a priority going forward. Since the program was restarted, the SDA has picked a number of high-profile projects to revive, including Trenton High School and Phillipsburg High School.

McKenna said 12 major school projects in Abbott districts are now underway, either in design or construction.

“And school projects are being performed on time and on budget, thanks to the reforms instituted by the governor,” he said.

For the original Camden High School project, about $3 million was spent on the design and initial work on the $100 million plan that would have replaced all but the building’s looming central tower. Some of that money went to the repair of the tower.

Rouhanifard said those plans would be consulted in the next version, and he didn’t rule out that the price tag could approach the original $100 million cost.

“We know what the floor is, but not the ceiling,” he said.

The money for the renovation project will come out of funding already authorized by the Legislature, although that is running out. Of a total of $8 billion initially authorized for urban districts through the Abbott decision, SDA officials said yesterday that just $205 million is left and not yet committed. The Camden work will come out of that total, they said.

After that money is gone, the administration will need to return to the Legislature for authority to borrow additional funds, and McKenna has said it would likely seek voter approval through a bond referendum.

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