Q&A: Katrina McCombs, New Superintendent of Camden City School District

Carly Sitrin | April 22, 2019 | Education
McCombs has big ambitions but is facing big challenges — not least a severe budget crisis

Katrina McCombs, new superintendent of Camden City School District
When Katrina McCombs took over as acting superintendent of Camden City School District in 2018, she inherited a network of schools recovering from more than two decades of mismanagement and systemic inequity. Her predecessor, Paymon Rouhanifard, had led the district through the state takeover in 2013 and had achieved significant academic improvements before unexpectedly announcing he would be stepping down last year.

McCombs was officially appointed to the superintendent position last week. Her appointment comes amid a severe budget crisis to the tune of $27 million; just last week she announced the closure of Veterans Memorial Family School and Bonsall Preschool Annex. In addition, she said students who attended the Cream Family School will have to move to neighborhood schools as their old building will be turned into a new early childhood development center. Nearly 900 students all told will have to be relocated and anywhere from 50 to 200 employees could be laid off.

All the while, student enrollment is shifting more toward charter and renaissance schools (a charter-district hybrid model), taking crucial budget dollars with them.

NJ Spotlight: What do you think you’ll be able to do now that you couldn’t do in an acting role?

McCombs: I think what the appointment does is it just solidifies the ability to have stable leadership and a stable structure that everyone can be at ease with. For me, it allows me to continue to set the district up for sustainable local control.

One of the first things I wanted to do was to hear what our community members, our teachers and our students feel were the necessary things to make our traditional school district better. After 20, 30 meetings and 500 surveys, we were able to come up with a strategic plan that encompassed many of those areas of concern.

Q: What are your top priorities?

A: My singular, crystal-clear focus is on accelerating student achievement. Then, ensuring that we have financial order, lowering the number of negative audit findings that we have. And then, seeing the new Camden high school built.

Q: What have you learned from your predecessor, Paymon Rouhanifard?

A: I’m learning that change is not easy … I’ve learned you have to persevere. You have to stay focused.

When Paymon first came on board I was serving as director of early childhood education. I felt a little isolated from some of the decisions that were being made with regard to school closures and the Urban Hope Act because it didn’t include pre-K. Seeing how he had to manage building closures was tough to look at. Being someone who was educated in some of those buildings it was difficult for me. I never in a million years thought that I would ever have to close a building.

Q: And now you must close schools.

A: We thought a lot about what we [could] do to avoid having to close schools. When we look at the deficit ($27 million) and at our shifting enrollment, at the number of students who are going to vocational schools, we just look at what we have left, our operating budget In tandem with [our] aging facilities [that] need millions and millions of dollars’ worth of upgrades. We really had to look at things from a different perspective, do as many tradeoffs as we possibly could, and once our backs were against the wall, really think about some innovative actions.

Q: But even with those changes, people are still understandably upset about those closures.

A: [Regarding the demolition of Camden High] I remember talking to young people and my question was, ‘How do you feel about your school being torn down?’ And they were like ‘What took you so long?’ The nostalgia that I had for it, they just didn’t have. And that’s also echoed in parents all over the city. Our generation is trying to resurrect something today in the public-school system, that strong tradition of excellence not only in athletics but in academics too. But when I heard the children, I said that’s selfish, I’m holding on to my experience. What about the experience for kids in 100-year-old buildings who are seeing kids in other cities have a brand-new state-of-the-art building with labs, things that other people take for granted in other communities? Why should our kids have any less?

Q: Looking at the current scandal at the SDA and the lack of money, what does that mean for Camden school facilities?

A: It doesn’t affect plans this year directly. In addition to the $14 million that was needed [at Veterans Family School] we have a combined total of $122 million dollars’ worth of needs that we put in SDA applications for. Not being very clear on the future of the funding sources [of the SDA], it’s concerning to be a superintendent of a district that has so many needs and not know where those funds can come from.

Q: Where do you find the money to accomplish your goals? And how is the fiscal health of the district now?

Katrina McCombs
A: Finding the money means just prioritizing and having tradeoffs. We were already in tradeoff mode. We just heighten that. And so instead of maybe having two positions, we have to just shave it down to one and have people do a little bit more.

We have been able to hire an assistant business administrator. We’ve been able to hire a purchasing agent which will help us to ensure that we’re paying our bills in a timely manner.

The other big piece that we have been able to accomplish is converting our business software system over to a new system because so many of the problems in our audit findings were just based on the fact that our business system was not designed for educational finance. We also had to terminate some individuals who were not meeting our high expectations. All of those things have shown us that we are turning a corner. Now it’s about being consistent with our practice. And then we would be one step closer again to local control.

[Camden’s financial struggles] are 40 years in the making it wasn’t an overnight process to get here. But it won’t take 40 years for us to get out of it.

Q: You’ve been given this job in the midst of unrest over these school closures and financial distress. How do you instill community confidence in your leadership?

A: I think it’s just really staying anchored and steady in our strategic plan because that was based on input from the community. We’re reporting to the State Board of Education … and we’re just making sure we are working to be transparent with what we’re doing. We need to be making sure that in the midst of the change, we’re able to still highlight the positive … but also being honest because I don’t want to paint a rosy picture just to make people feel better when it’s not going to ultimately be a reality.

Q: What is your vision for the next generation in the terms of balance of types of schools in Camden?

A: At some point we will have to have a conversation with our community, our leaders, our educational leaders and the state to figure out how we ensure that all of the school types in the city are wonderful choices of excellence in education.

Katrina McCombs
My goal is to do my part with the traditional public-school district to make sure that it’s a viable and excellent option for our parents. My ultimate vision would be getting to a place where when you look at all the indicators — academic achievement, financial management, governance, all of that — when you look across the school types that it’s so hard for parents to decide which one because they’re all so good.

Q: Knowing how old the traditional school facilities are and the lack of state money to fix them, it seems like the movement of students from traditional public schools to charter/renaissance schools will continue?

A: Some parents do choose buildings based on what they look like. And so, yes, that is a factor. Think about a child taking state tests when it’s hot out, and it’s hot inside, and there is no ventilation but yet they have to power through and they are competing with a counterpart maybe in another school that doesn’t have those challenges. You know it’s just inequitable. Twelve instructional days we lost last year because of broken pipes and air heating issues. They had to be made up, of course, but it still disrupts. And it impacts parents too. You have to say, ‘Hey I’m sorry, parents, but we have a flood here; you’ve got to come get your kids.’

Q: And might school closures continue if the money doesn’t come?

A: Unless there is an influx of more money to help with facilities challenges, it will make it increasingly difficult to operate those buildings. It’s just a dollars-and-cents budget exercise. [The facilities issues] just will continue to eat away at our general-fund monies. Capital projects we can’t even pay for out of our funds. And if we don’t have the funding from SDA, what are we left with?

We can’t have kids in buildings with water coming down which is what we had this year and we did fix it, but it was a temporary fix because we couldn’t afford the full roof replacement. Regardless of the deficit, a transition out of these buildings needs to be done by itself.

Q: Where on the path toward local control is Camden?

A: We have come a long way in five years. I think we … have been able to turn the corner at a much more rapid pace than I’ve seen in the history of other state-operated districts. But now it’s time to really make sure that in the traditional public schools, we’re accelerating the rate of achievement. We really need to be able to set ourselves up over the next few years and continue to get our fiscal house in a sustainable place. We’ve just got to earn it. We don’t want to slip back or be given local control prematurely and then not be ready to sustain it. So, let’s get it right, let’s get it on a firm foundation so that we can build towards a future success.

Q: Do you have a timeline for that?

A: I can say that if we continue at the rate that we are showing improvement now, it could be three to five years. But that’s for the Department of Education to decide. I think that a fatal mistake for this district would be to prematurely try to rush to local control.

Q: What do you want your legacy to be?

A: I want my legacy to be a traditional public-school system that shows strong academic achievement and making sure that Camden High comes to fruition. I love this district. I want to give it my all. And I don’t want it to be done without community input and collaboration.

People can expect tough decisions from me. Some will be popular, some will be unpopular, but at the end of the day they can expect me to make good decisions with integrity. I am looking forward to it.