State takes reins of troubled Camden schools

CAMDEN – Gov. Chris Christie announced Monday the state’s plan to take over its fourth troubled school district.

The governor’s announcement to take control of Camden City schools is the first state takeover of a New Jersey school district under Christie’s tenure.

Christie said during a news conference at Woodrow Wilson High School that Camden’s “problem has become chronic and severe,” saying it’s time for the state to take extraordinary measures.

“The situation I believe is dire now,” Christie said. “Each day that it gets worse we’re failing the children of Camden [and] we’re denying them a future.”

Citing standardized testing scores that rank nearly 50 percent of the state average, Christie said the state has been left with no other option.

“The system is broken,” he said. “We do this today to try to change Camden.”

The governor was joined at the news conference by Camden Democratic state lawmakers Sen. Donald Norcross and Assemblymen Gilbert Wilson and Angel Fuentes.

The takeover was also met with support by the state Senate’s top Democratic lawmaker.

“We recognize this is a dramatic change, but its time has come,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said in a statement.

“I know that, elected officials of both parties know that, and more than anyone else, the parents of Camden with children in failing schools know that. We all need to do this together and move forward for the future of Camden’s children.”

Among the people and organizations unwilling to offer an opinion on the governor’s announcement was the state’s largest teacher union.

“It is always preferable to have public schools managed by local communities, and the citizens of Camden must be assured that they will continue to have a strong and respected voice in reforming a public school system that meets the needs of all Camden students,” said New Jersey Education Association president Barbara Keshishian in a statement.

“The track record for state-run districts has been questionable at best, and NJEA will withhold judgment on the Camden takeover model until we see the details,” she said, referring to the other districts – Paterson, Newark and Jersey City – already under state control.

Christie predicted opponents to the takeover will likely not remain silent over the coming months, saying he’s ready for their criticism.

“They will not be able to say that we didn’t act,” he said. “And I believe that failure to act in this instance is a greater sin than any other mistake.”

The commissioner of the state’s Department of Education, Chris Cerf, lauded the governor for having the courage to do what he says is the right move for Camden, and maybe not necessarily the most politically safe decision.

“It is driven by a deep conviction that the governor has, that this is, as he said, that this is what government is for,” Cerf said. “It is for using the power of government to change lives for the good.”

According to Christie’s office, the state takeover could be in place by the fall.

Among other things, according to the state:

* Nearly 90 percent of Camden’s schools, 23 out of 26, are in the bottom 5 percent performance-wise in all of New Jersey, including the three lowest performing schools in the state.

* Camden’s four-year graduation rate was only 49 percent in 2012 – 37 points below the New Jersey average.

* But during the 2011-12 school year, Camden spent $23,709 per student, compared to the statewide average of $18,045.

State takes reins of troubled Camden schools