Katrina McCombs, a longtime Camden educator, on Wednesday was named the permanent schools chief for the struggling district that has been under a state takeover since 2013.
State Education Commissioner Lamont O. Repollet recommended McCombs, who had been serving as interim superintendent since June, for the position. In a resolution, the state Board of Education said McCombs was “identified as the best candidate” and unanimously approved the appointment during its monthly meeting in Trenton.
McCombs, a Camden native, was educated in the city’s public schools and came up through the ranks as a teacher and administrator. She has spent her entire career, spanning more than two decades, in the district, which has struggled to improve student performance.
“I look forward to the challenge,” McCombs, 48, told a packed room. “This just seems to be the next step.”
Repollet said McCombs has “demonstrated passion and dedication to the students and the Camden community throughout her career.”
“I am extremely proud to say that this is my recommendation,” Repollet said.
In a statement, Camden Mayor Francisco Moran praised the appointment: “It’s exciting to have a homegrown talent like Katrina leading our schools. I am confident that under Katrina’s leadership our children will receive the quality education that they deserve.”
Details about McCombs’ contract and salary have not been finalized, said Carmen Cusido, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education. Her current salary is $191,584.
She replaces Paymon Rouhanifard, who was brought in by Gov. Chris Christie to try to transform the failing district in 2013, a few months after a state takeover. He stepped down in June and threw his support behind McCombs, who served in his administration as a deputy superintendent for four years.
McCombs inherits a district that has become a symbol of the changing landscape of urban public education. She touched off a fury of controversy last week when she announced a $27 million budget shortfall for the coming school year and plans to close two schools and consolidate another. Layoffs are also likely, she said.
A big question also remains about when the state will relinquish its control over the school system. McCombs said she hopes the district will return to local control in about three to five years. Three other takeover districts — Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City — are moving toward a return to local control.
Supporters, including her family and Camden school officials, applauded and yelled, “You deserve it," when her appointment was confirmed. McCombs said her top priority was to put students first and improve achievement. “This district means so much to me,” she said.
“She did everything we asked her to do,” said school board advisory member Martha Wilson. “She is working extremely hard.”
Outside the meeting, about two dozen Camden activists held a rally with community and union leaders from around the state to demand more funding for urban public schools. Trenton was the last stop of a three-day “miles for equity” march that started Monday in Camden.
“This is a manufactured budget crisis,” said parent Ronsha Dickerson. “Where is the money?”
Chanting and waving signs, the protesters, who included students from Veterans Family School, which is slated to close in June, cheered as Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, completed his 40-mile trek. Benson was greeted by his father as he choked back tears.
While Rouhanifard, the first outsider to head the district, was praised by many for making sweeping changes, Benson and others say school officials have focused too much on Renaissance and charter schools and not enough on traditional public schools.
Rouhanifard is credited with improving the graduation rate from 49 percent to 70 percent and cutting the dropout rate from 21 percent to 12 percent in five years. Ten of the city’s schools once rated among the worst public schools in the state but have been removed from that list.
Camden is the only district in New Jersey that has all three types of public schools. Renaissance and charters are publicly funded but privately operated, and thousands of city students have flocked to enroll. In 2014, Camden converted five of the city’s most struggling schools into Renaissance schools.
McCombs cited a budget gap for the 2019-20 school year, as well as long-term enrollment and facilities issues for the changes announced last week, that would affect about 900 students. About 50 to 200 jobs could be cut, she said.
Even if the state provides emergency aid, the district plans to close Veterans and the Bonsall Annex and convert the Riletta T. Cream Elementary into an early-childhood center, she said. Students will be sent elsewhere in the district.
Critics have called for a freeze on cuts and school closures and want a federal probe into the district’s spending. Repollet met briefly with the protesters and asked students for suggestions for their schools.
“I’m listening. I hear you,” Repollet told a group of students. He left without commenting to reporters.
Students from Veterans, which has about 500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, will be sent to Davis Elementary, while bilingual sixth through eighth graders will be sent to Cramer Elementary, where the district plans to start a dual-language academy.
Most of the district’s preschoolers would be enrolled in Cream Elementary, while Cream students will be sent to H.B. Wilson Elementary, which will become a K-8 school, and Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy.
“We have to make and take some very critical and tough decisions. I want to make sure we are setting the district up for success," McCombs said.