Unlike their compatriots in Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson, Camden’s school board and community leaders barely contested Gov. Chris Christie’s move to seize control of the district in 2013.
Several even stood with Christie in announcing the takeover, and state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard has stressed his community outreach efforts ever since.
But that relatively peaceful state of affairs may be changing.
A fledgling group of parents and activists — with the assistance of prominent statewide groups — has filed the first legal challenge since the takeover. Its target: state approval of two charter networks that plan to open 11 new schools in the district over the next decade.
It was a bold stroke by “Save Camden Schools,” a group that organizers said has more than 300 active members and is starting to make some noise — although nothing yet like activists in places like Newark, who have been a major force in contesting the Christie administration presence there.
“We’re not like in Newark, where they had support of groups like the union and others already,” said Mo’neke Ragsdale, a parent and cofounder of the Camden group. “We are starting from scratch.”
Still, the challenge came with some heft behind it, enlisting a prominent school equity attorney, Richard Shapiro, and backed by the statewide Save Our Schools NJ. Also helping is the Education Law Center, the Newark-based group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation.
Ragsdale said that the group is a spinoff of SOSNJ, although statewide leaders stress there is no formal affiliation between the two and contend that SOSNJ has no role in the challenge.
Still, the informal affiliation has drawn a sharp response from several backers of the Camden administration, as well as those connected with the charter school networks under challenge, who contend that outside groups are leading the charge.
A spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools, one of the charters, last week said the challenge was hatched by groups based in “affluent Princeton” and with little real connection with Camden. She was alluding to the home addresses of some of the leaders of SOSNJ and Shapiro himself, who’s office is in Princeton.
“Unfortunately, the lawsuit filed by groups based in affluent Princeton, NJ, seeks to pit Camden parents against each other — those parents who want these new school options and those who don’t — and that’s not good for Camden students at all,” said Barbara Martinez, chief external officer for Uncommon Schools.
That has touched off a bitter back and forth with Camden organizers, who contend that while Save Camden Schools has some outside backing, their concerns are homegrown.
Martinez “obviously doesn’t know Camden,” said Ragsdale, who has become a chief spokesman of Save Camden Schools,
“She doesn’t know anything about what we have been doing down here,” Ragsdale said. “We’ve been organizing for three years, and have been holding more and more meetings throughout.”
How much the group will affect what looks like a steady train of changes in the district is yet to be seen.
The challenge filed last month but announced on Thursday appeals the state’s approval of applications filed by Uncommon and the Mastery Schools network to open schools under the Urban Hope Act.
The act allows for a new hybrid form of charter schools in Camden that would draw students from specific neighborhoods and need approval of the district. Three such networks have been approved, and each opened its first schools this fall.
In turn, the organizations get more funding from the district than do traditional charters. They are also are permitted for the first time to use public funds for facilities.
The challenge focuses on acting commissioner David Hespe’s approval of the two applications this summer, saying he did not follow the required review of the impact of the new schools.
Shapiro in his letter to Hespe cites two state Supreme Court decisions that both backed state decisions on charters, but required that the administration nonetheless conduct full reviews of both the charter’s financial impact and its affect on district demographics. Hespe’s approval of the schools included no such review
Who is paying for Shapiro is unclear, since Ragsdale said it is an unidentified individual bankrolling the fees for the lawyer. She said it was neither SOSNJ nor the Education Law Center.
“I know it may not look good,” Ragsdale said of the anonymous funding. “But they knew the cause we are fighting for . . . And anybody who wants to help the people of Camden, I’m all for it.”
Not all in the community support the group’s effort, though, and they too are starting to make their voices heard.
Arthur Barclay, a city councilman and volunteer coach in the district, said that the Save Camden Schools does not speak for the many parents who desperately want change in the district and support reforms being pushed by Rouhanifard.
“They’re a small group that doesn’t represent the city,” he said last night of the Camden group. “I don’t speak for the whole city, but there are a lot of parents who welcome what is going on . . . I don’t see how anyone can block new schools in a city that desperately needs them.”
Barclay said he understands that any state takeover is going to come with its dissenters.
“That is one of the great things about America: they have every right to say and do what they want,” he said. “But something has got to change in our schools.”