Two of Camden District’s High Schools Consider Converting to Charters

John Mooney | May 12, 2014 | Education
Switch would move schools out of district control, feeding more tensions over charter growth

Camden BOE Building
At least two Camden high schools are weighing whether to convert to charters, as the prospect of major change sweeps through the district in its first year under state control.

Administrators and faculty at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy and MetEast High School have already discussed the possibility of the conversion, which a majority of both staff and parents would need to approve and then make a formal application to the state.

Teachers at Brimm Medical Arts High School are expected to discuss making the change today, the school’s union representative said, adding that the union is resisting the move.

These schools would be the first in the state to seek to convert to charters. As such, they would no longer be within the jurisdiction of the district — instead holding separate agreements with the state. They would still receive the bulk of their funding through the district.

Two private schools in Newark have won approval for charter conversion.

The conversion is by no means assured, and it is lengthy process that can take up to two years.

District spokesman Brendan Lowe said it was something each school was considering on its own; the state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard was not involved.

“We continue to focus on our efforts to improve the district schools,” Lowe said. “Welcome them to do what they want to do, but we have had no role in it.”

But some union and community leaders questioned that claim. Rouhanifard plans on shaking up the district, including laying off hundreds of teachers and staff to close what the superintendent has said is a $75 million budget gap.

About 400 teachers last week received so-called Rice notices of pending board discussions of their possible termination or nonrenewal, and while Lowe said the number of actual layoffs won’t be that many, Rouhanifard has warned that 200 to 250 teachers could be laid off. The notifications of layoffs are expected to go out this week, although any decision on charter schools would be more than a year off and not impact that.

“Timing is everything,” said Karen Borrelli, the Camden Education Association’s board liaison and the union representative at Brimm. “The pitch they are using for the charter conversion is it will save our jobs and keep the schools together.”

These potential moves and layoffs are just some of the tumult to come. Camden has become the focal point of the new Urban Hope Act, under which three charter organizations have won at least preliminary approval to open the first of up to five new “renaissance schools” each in the city, starting next fall. The renaissance schools are a hybrid and better-funded version of charters, operating in concert with the district but nonetheless operated by outside charter organizations.

Appointed last August by Gov. Chris Christie, Rouhanifard has vowed to take a number of immediate steps in his strategic plan, from improved security to strengthened professional development for teachers.

At the moment the situation in Camden is markedly different than that of Newark, which has announced that it will turn over some schools to charter operators. Rouhanifard, however, has vowed to work with the renaissance schools.