Camden activists have asked the state Department of Education to rescind more than $1 million in contracts awarded by the state-controlled city school district to politically connected firms, including some with close ties to South Jersey power broker George E. Norcross III.
In a letter this week to Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, 15 local groups said the deals should be canceled because the firms are “conflicted” by their ties to local Democrats or have come under scrutiny as part of an ongoing state task-force investigation into tax incentives awarded by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
At issue are four contracts for professional services approved by school Superintendent Katrina McCombs. She pulled the contracts from the agenda at a June school board advisory meeting after concerns were raised by a board member and an activist in the audience, Pastor Amir Khan, the news site TAPinto Camden reported. McCombs later approved the contracts.
In a statement Friday, McCombs said that district contracts are awarded "to whomever scores the highest based on objective criteria. We do not take political connections into consideration and are solely focused on hiring the most qualified firms. Furthermore, these are firms that are focused on the nuances of working with public entities as part of their business model and have significant experience working with school districts. In short, they are the best, transparent, and impartial option for the city school district.”
A copy of the activists’ letter was sent to Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat who has been engaged in a public battle with Norcross, widely regarded as the preeminent Democratic kingmaker in the Garden State. On Wednesday, a New Jersey judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Norcross against Gov. Phil Murphy alleging that the task force was illegally formed by the governor to target Norcross.
Dan Fee, a spokesperson for Norcross, said in an email Friday evening: "It’s sad that all it takes for an activist to get media coverage is to make a silly allegation and tie it to George Norcross. George doesn’t own or control those firms, the superintendent who made the decisions is appointed by the state and not local politicians, and George and his firm have a longstanding and well documented policy of not contributing to local officials. These are silly allegations.”
A spokesperson for the governor could not be reached late Friday.
The four contracts highlighted by the activists in their letter involve professional-service firms linked to Camden County and Camden City Democrats.
McCombs approved a contract with the law firm of Brown & Connery to serve as the district’s labor counsel. William Tambussi, a partner at the firm, represented Norcross in a lawsuit over the task-force investigation.
McCombs also approved an appointment as special counsel to Parker McKay, a law firm headed by Philip Norcross, a brother of George Norcross. The firm was a focus of the EDA probe.
The superintendent also awarded a solicitor appointment to a law firm whose partners include Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli and former Gov. James J. Florio, and a contract to the district’s longtime auditor, Bowman and Co. The latter has contributed hundred of thousands in campaign donations to local Democrats, according to the activists.
“We must reform these contract award practices so that politically connected firms are not given an unfair advantage,” the activists’ letter states.
New Jersey public school districts are allowed to award “no-bid” contracts for professional services, according to Michael Yaple, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education. They must, however, solicit a request for qualified vendors, he said.
McCombs "retains the authority to manage the day-to-day operations of the district, including making decisions with respect to hiring and contracting for professional services,” Yaple said.
In 2013, the state took over the district in Camden, the largest public school system in South Jersey, after years of poor test scores and a graduation rate that was among the lowest in the state.
Today, more Camden public school students are enrolled in charter and Renaissance schools than traditional public schools. For the 2018-19 school year, the district said it enrolled 7,520 students in the city’s 19 traditional public schools; 4,340 in 11 charter schools; and 4,400 in 11 Renaissance schools.