Camden School Chief’s First Public Meeting Makes Clear That Much Has Changed

John Mooney | September 25, 2013 | Education
State-appointed superintendent takes inclusive approach with school board but has final say

New Camden superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard with two members of the city's board of education: Vice President Martha Wilson (left) and President Kathryn Blackshear.
Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard’s debut before the community in his first meeting with the local school board probably seemed like it took place in a world far different from Newark, where he had his last job.

With only about 50 people in the audience and a school board that was largely cooperative, Rouhanifard coasted through 100 pages of routine line items and programs last night as he introduced himself to the public for the first time since his appointment by Gov. Chris Christie to run the troubled district.

In the state-run Newark schools, where Rouhanifard was a strategy officer before taking the Camden job this summer, the public board meetings are hardly ever so calm. Almost from the start, Superintendent Cami Anderson has often faced heckling from the audience and resistance from the board.

But Rouhanifard – at least so far — enjoys a far-friendlier audience in this state takeover of an urban school district, even if the challenges he faces are arguably greater.

Several board members raised questions about one expenditure or another. One or two community activists had with points to make. But the board’s public comment session at the end of the meeting took place before a room that was mostly empty by that point – leaving Rouhanifard mostly unscathed, and not a little relieved.

“It’s nice to have the first one done,” he said afterward.

The board and its new superintendent didn’t ignore the enormous hurdles facing Camden’s the schools.

Rouhanifard invited Camden Mayor Dana Redd and a representative of the Camden County police to speak about new safety initiatives in the city.

The discussion reflected the stark reality of life in the city, including a recent shooting near one of the elementary schools that saw a bullet fly through a school bus filled with children.

Camden County Deputy Chief Joseph Williams described in almost military terms how his officers will be setting up “perimeters” around the schools — including the use of cameras on the streets and police helicopters overhead — to protect students as they come and go.

“The children shouldn’t have to see the drug dealers, or hear the shots fired,” he said. “We take that very seriously.”

As the state’s appointed superintendent, Rouhanifard can’t expect to face absolutely no resistance, even if the board will have little say in final decisions.

Board members Sarah Davis and Barbara Coscarello questioned some specific programs and consultant contracts, including an agreement to retain a new public relations firm at $36,000 and spending $111,000 for teacher trainers and evaluators.

Other board members said that some of the initiatives Rouhanifard has promised have been tried before and that community surveys he plans have already been done.

“You said you would talk to stakeholders, and that has all been done,” said Mangaliso Davis, a longtime activist. “And you said you will come up with a plan in 100 days. Now you will let us know in December, after the [gubernatorial] election?”

One mother said the state’s touted purchase of $5.3 million in new textbooks this summer hasn’t reached all the classrooms, something she witnesssed first-hand at her “Back to School Night.” And she said that 5- and 6-year-old children were left unattended on a city street after being dropped off by a school-bus driver

Rouhanifard listened intently, even to some of the loudest voices, and invited them to sit down with him. ““If you want to have a longer conversation, I would be happy to do that,” he told Davis.

And the board’s president, Kathryn Blackshear, said that so far the new superintendent has been giving the board a voice and listening to her suggestions and concerns.

“I have more flexibility with him” she said afterward. “He’s trying to work with the board.”

But the board now has only an advisory role. While Rouhanifard and his senior staff promised to try to address the board’s questions, there will no longer be any votes of the board.

Rouhanifard’s words as he closed to business portion of the meeting reminded everyone there would be only one vote that counts: “In accordance with the authority of the state superintendent … I, Paymon Rouhanifard, approve the agenda items.”