Op-Ed: Promises Unfulfilled in Camden’s Schools, and a City Left Behind

Bryan Morton | February 13, 2020 | Opinion
Where’s the emergency state aid that was promised? Without it, superintendent may be forced to increase class sizes, eliminate programs and lay off teachers
Bryan Morton

Camden’s schools have made huge gains over the past few years, but such progress is fragile, and I fear we are one broken promise away from returning to the old days of dysfunction and disillusionment.

Last spring, superintendent of the Camden City School District Katrina McCombs announced she was going to make the tough but necessary decision to close a school to address a structural budget deficit. State Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet intervened and promised millions in emergency aid. As a result, this under-enrolled, academically struggling school with massive repair needs was kept open. The state basked in the applause of teachers’ unions committed to maintaining the fiscally imprudent status quo.

There was only one problem. The money never arrived.

The start of school came and went, and optimists cautioned it was just a bureaucratic delay. Here we are more than a month into the new year, and still no word of emergency aid. Worse, the department released dollars to many other districts that applied for aid. As is often the case, Camden is an outlier, the district left behind.

Humiliating treatment

As a proud Camden resident and public school parent, it’s humiliating to be duped by a handshake agreement; it’s humiliating that our lack of local control means our superintendent can’t make her own decisions about what is in the best interest of the district; it’s humiliating that Camden continues to be bullied by an administration that seems hostile to Camden.

Perhaps most disappointingly, the state — an administration that claims to value transparency — has failed to adequately respond to repeated inquiries by Camden families. More than a dozen parents testified at the January State Board of Education meeting requesting information about the status of the aid. No response. Shortly after, 10 grassroots organizations submitted a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy and Commissioner Repollet asking for information. Nothing. I personally emailed the commissioner, twice, requesting a meeting to discuss the aid. No response.

Last week, parents held a rally demanding the aid be released, which finally prompted a public statement from the department. The statement pledged support to career and tech programs, community schools, and facilities, but it did not provide any real information on the one question that parents are asking: When will the aid arrive?

My sense of urgency comes from the fact that the absence of aid is causing immediate short-term harm and has the potential to cause irrevocable long-term harm.

At what cost to students?

Today, schools are operating on bare-bones budgets. Without aid, the superintendent may be forced to implement the kind of austerity measures that devastate schools: increasing class sizes, eliminating programs, and laying off teachers. Sure, we will have kept another school open, but at what cost to students across the district?

Beyond this school year, Camden schools are due for serious long-term planning. It is irresponsible for the district to continue to operate as if it has 10,000 students when its enrollment has decreased by nearly 40%.

We cannot turn back the clock on the reality that Camden families have exercised their right to choice in education and, as such, have sought out alternative high-quality school options including county vocational, renaissance, charter and parochial schools.

The district must develop a plan for how to provide its remaining students with an outstanding education, one that maximizes district resources and gives students the educational experience they deserve. Superintendent McCombs recognizes this reality, but the commissioner is, inexplicably, not letting her do what is necessary.

Not a ‘charity case’

The Camden City School District is not a charity case. We aren’t entitled to emergency aid because we are poor or because the commissioner made a promise. We have earned additional resources because we have labored to build a better district after decades of mismanagement and neglect.

Test scores have increased every year since 2014. In addition, a Stanford University study found that students in Camden’s renaissance schools exceeded state gains in math and reading for the past four years.

Finally, according to a newly released report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the percent of Camden adults age 18 to 24 who have graduated from high school, earned a GED or attended some college has risen from 68% to 83% over the last eight years.

The most visible feature of Camden’s progress may be our towering new buildings along the waterfront, but the best early indicator of a community’s future success is the quality of its schools.

By this measure, Camden families have reason to be very hopeful, but there’s still something standing in our way.

Commissioner Repollet and Gov. Murphy made a promise to Camden’s children, and it’s time they fulfilled it.