For the first time since a 2013 state takeover of Camden’s public school system, voters on Tuesday will select three board members to advise Superintendent Katrina McCombs, but will have little authority on how the state-run district operates.

Many believe Tuesday’s election is a watershed moment in the struggling district, which has made modest gains in student performance. Nine candidates are running for three open seats on a nine-member board.

Under the state takeover imposed by former Gov. Chris Christie, board members serve in an advisory capacity and McCombs, the state-appointed superintendent, makes decisions about the budget, personnel, contracts, curriculum, and instruction. There is a movement to change that by returning the district to local control and authority.

Last year, activists won a major victory when an appeals court said residents should decide how school board members are selected. Residents voted for an election. Previously, the mayor appointed the board members to three-year terms.

“For a long time we’ve been getting the short end of the stick,” said Elton Custis, 37, a mental health specialist who is running on a ticket backed by the Camden Education Association. “This is a grand opportunity for anyone who has a vested interest in our children.”

Custis is running on the “Camden Votes” slate with Je’Nell McRae, a teacher at Camden County Technical Schools, and Tyann La’Shae Wall, president of Cultivating Camden, a nonprofit that conducts college readiness and career seminars for high schoolers.

They face an uphill battle with the “Education for Everyone” ticket of Troy Still, an administrator at Mastery High, a Renaissance school in the city; Falio Leyba-Martinez, a business owner; and Nyemah Gillespie, a dance school owner. The trio is endorsed by the entrenched Camden County Democratic Committee.

Some are questioning whether Still should be allowed to run. Employees at traditional public schools are barred from serving on the school board where they reside. McCombs and Still believe he is eligible because he is not a district employee.

Janet Bamford, a spokesperson for the New Jersey School Boards Association, described the matter as “complicated and unclear." She said the question should be referred to the state’s School Ethics Commission.

Still, who is completing a one-year term on the board, said he wants to end the divide among Renaissance, charter, and traditional public schools. For the 2018-19 school year, the district enrolled 7,520 students in 19 traditional public schools; 4,340 in 11 charter schools; and 4,400 in 11 Renaissance schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated by KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon Schools.

“At the end of the day, kids are being affected by this,” Still said. “I’m trying to get people to see the bigger picture is that we are all one unit.”

Also running are three independent candidates: Theo Spencer, a technology consultant and former board member appointed by former Mayor Gwen Faison; Angel Cordero, a community activist who has advocated for vouchers and school choice; and Aaron Cooper, a city firefighter.

Spencer, a lifelong resident who lives in the city’s Parkside section, said he would use his finance background to help manage the district’s $314 million annual budget. He also would consider legal action to end the state takeover.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Spencer said.

The big question for Camden now is when the state will relinquish control over the school system. For years, the district has long been plagued by poor test scores, a low graduation rate, and a high dropout rate.

Christie took over the failing district in 2013 and brought in Paymon Rouhanifard, an outsider to transform the schools system. Rouhanifard drastically changed the educational landscape in Camden, with more students enrolled in Renaissance and charter schools than traditional public schools.

Former Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard (center) with students at Woodrow Wilson High. He stepped down in April 2018.
Former Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard (center) with students at Woodrow Wilson High. He stepped down in April 2018.

McCombs, who succeeded Rouhanifard as schools chief in April, said Camden has made gains but still must meet state benchmarks for student performance and fiscal fitness.

“We are closer than we ever have been in regaining local control,” McCombs said.

Three other takeover districts — Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City — are moving toward a return to local control after achieving mixed success under state control.

The Philadelphia School District, taken over by the state in 2001, was restored to local control last year after more than 16 years of state oversight.

In Camden, district officials have been criticized for neglecting its traditional public schools. South Jersey’s largest public school district enrolled more than 19,000 students several years ago.

Camden is the only district in New Jersey that has all three types of public schools.

McCombs said she plans to work closely with the three new board members and consider their opinions when she makes decisions. Their terms will begin in January.

“This is what the community wants,” she said.