Camden schools Superintendent Katrina McCombs announced Wednesday that Veterans Memorial Family School, which had been set to close this month, will remain open for the 2019-2020 school year, thanks to a $6 million state bailout for the struggling school district.

McCombs made the announcement at a school board advisory meeting, saying that state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet had asked the district to keep the school open and made a verbal commitment for the funding.

Camden School Advisory Board President Martha Wilson, left, speaks in front of the advisory board with Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs, right.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Camden School Advisory Board President Martha Wilson, left, speaks in front of the advisory board with Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs, right.

“It’s not everything we wanted, but it is not our doomsday scenario,” McCombs said in an interview. “This is a much better place than I thought we would be in.”

The announcement was met with applause from board members and community leaders who vehemently opposed a plan to close some schools and realign others. McCombs cautioned that the Camden City School District still faces serious fiscal problems and must submit a formal application seeking the $6 million in emergency aid.

Activist Amir M. Khan addresses Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs with concerns and questions about the future of the school district.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Activist Amir M. Khan addresses Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs with concerns and questions about the future of the school district.

“I’m just thankful,” said Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, which represents teachers and support staff. “It wasn’t looking good, but we pressed on.”

Veterans, which houses about 500 students in a 90-year-old building, needs about $14 million in repairs, McCombs said. The district hopes to use a portion of the $6 million to perform emergency work, such as replacing the roof, HVAC system, and boiler, she said.

“I still have reservations about the condition of the school,” McCombs said.

McCombs said about 55 employees district-wide, including five teachers, will lose their jobs at the end of the school year due to budget cuts. Among those who will be laid off are 21 custodians whose jobs will be eliminated because Mastery Renaissance school terminated a shared service agreement with the district, she said. The layoffs could be reduced by resignations and retirements.

In April, McCombs touched off controversy when she announced a $27 million budget shortfall for the coming school year and plans to close two schools and consolidate another. She said at the time that 900 students could be impacted and as many as 200 layoffs could be likely.

There were protests, marches, including a trek by activists to Trenton, and appeals made to the state for additional funding. Camden is a takeover district operated by the state. McCombs announced recently that the district would receive $11 million in emergency aid, which reduced the job cuts needed to about 34.

“We should be fighting together because we’re all fighting for our students,” activist Amir Khan said during public comment at Wednesday’s meeting. Signs posted around the room read: “No shouting from the audience.”

Keith Benson, the head of the Camden Education Association, did a three-day trek to Trenton in April to protest the district's budget cuts.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Keith Benson, the head of the Camden Education Association, did a three-day trek to Trenton in April to protest the district's budget cuts.

McCombs said the Camden City School District’s proposed $365.5 million budget for the 2019-2020 school year has been approved, down from $382.7 million this year. Federal and state funding declined, while operating expenses increased by $10 million.

Even with the additional state aid announced Wednesday, McCombs said district plans to close the Bonsall Annex this month and convert the Riletta T. Cream Elementary into an early-childhood center, which will enroll most of the district’s preschoolers in the fall.

The preschool will be renamed the Riletta T. Cream Early Childhood Center, McCombs said. Cream, a popular longtime educator and principal at Camden High and a former Camden County freeholder, died in 2017 at age 91.

“It will still honor her legacy,” McCombs said.

A school in Camden bears the name of former Camden County Freeholder Riletta T. Cream, who died in 2017.
A school in Camden bears the name of former Camden County Freeholder Riletta T. Cream, who died in 2017.

About 200 Cream students will be sent to H.B. Wilson Elementary, which will become a K-8 school, and Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy The district plans to start a dual-language academy at Cramer Elementary for pre-K through sixth grade.

McCombs said the education commissioner wants the district to determine its long-term facilities needs. Because of declining enrollment and the changing landscape with more Camden public school students enrolled in charter and Renaissance schools than traditional public schools, the district has more buildings than it needs.

Camden is the only district in New Jersey that has all three types of public schools: traditional, and Renaissance and charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated

About 300 more traditional public school students are expected to attend Renaissance schools in the fall, boosting enrollment to about 4,786 students, the superintendent said. Charter school enrollment is expected to decline slightly to 4,374, and about 6,060 students are expected to attend the traditional city public schools, down from 6,358 this year.

The budget crisis is the biggest challenge that McCombs has faced since taking over the district last year from Paymon Rouhanifard, who was brought in by then-Gov. Chris Christie to head the district after the state takeover in 2013. She was named permanent superintendent in April.