Fine Print: Auditor Questions Oversight of Camden’s Renaissance Schools

Second audit finds gaps in enrollment and hiring at fast-growing hybrid charter schools

Kipp Cooper Norcross Academy at Lanning Square in Camden
Summary: The state auditor last week released the second of two reviews of the renaissance schools program in Camden’s state-operated schools, detailing how the state had failed between 2016 and 2018 to ensure proper enrollment and hiring processes had been followed.

What it means: The audit is hardly an indictment of the controversial schools or the program started in 2012 to open the way for a massive expansion of charter-led schools. In fact, the audit said the state and schools had followed the “applicable provisions” of the Urban Hope Act that created the schools, which now serve nearly 4,000 of the city’s children.

Still … The audit does raise the question of how diligently the state and the state-operated Camden school district are overseeing the 11 renaissance schools to ensure they follow other state requirements about hiring and certification. Similar issues plague traditional school districts as well, but none are being watched as closely — and debated as hotly — as those in Camden.

Most concerning: The audit found that a third of sampled staff in the three charter networks operating as renaissance schools had not gone through required criminal-background checks. Half of them had gone through checks elsewhere, but at least 28 had not undergone checks at all — and five would have been disqualified from employment. The audit also found a quarter of the teachers did not have appropriate certifications, and one principal didn’t have a supervisor’s certification at all.

Who’s to blame: This audit focuses on the state’s oversight of the schools; it follows an audit two weeks ago of the state-run Camden school district that included a lengthy section on enrollment in the renaissance schools. It found that while the renaissance schools are advertised as drawing students from their respective neighborhoods, the same as traditional schools, the district-run enrollment system only placed half of the students in schools in their neighborhoods.

What the state doesn’t know: The latest audit raises the question of whether the state’s required evaluations of the schools in general are all that rigorous. In 2016, the state’s lone inspection was a half-day, pre-announced visit to a single school, according to the audit. It said that was the state’s last on-site inspection. “The department’s current oversight process provides limited assurances that renaissance school projects are meeting their goals and are complying with state laws and regulations.”

The state’s response: The audits include a written response from the state agency being audited; by and large, the state Department of Education concedes the problems exist and promises remedial action.

Renaissance response: One of the three charter networks operating renaissance schools issued its own statement yesterday, saying it had revised its policies and was working to improve its procedures as well. “We are fully compliant with all staff background checks, and we have put additional checks in place to prevent an issue in the future,” read the statement from the KIPP network, which operates three schools in Camden. “In addition, we have implemented an action plan to resolve any remaining certifications issues.”

Who’s the state auditor: First established in 1934, the Office of the State Auditor is a function of the state Legislature that performs financial and performance audits of state agencies and programs to ensure they fulfill the intent of legislation. Its findings are published periodically and forwarded to the state Senate and Assembly leadership for follow-up. Appointed by the state legislature, the current state auditor is Stephen Eels.

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