In a sweeping move to drastically change the Camden School District, Superintendent Katrina McCombs on Tuesday announced a plan to close four schools, affecting about 1,200 students and leaving one neighborhood without a traditional public school.

The highly anticipated announcement sent shock waves in the state-run district that was once the largest in South Jersey. McCombs cited as causes for the decision declining enrollment and a projected $40 million budget deficit for the next school year because the district is not getting as much money from the state as it had budgeted.

“This is a painful, painful process for our community,” McCombs said in an interview. “These closures will help us get to a place of better fiscal sustainability.”

McCombs said layoffs are likely, but it was not immediately known how many jobs would be cut. It would leave the city’s Fairview neighborhood without a traditional public school. Camden currently has 19 schools that enroll 6,347 students.

“There will be layoffs that have to come,” she said. A spokesperson said 150 positions could be eliminated or consolidated.

McCombs said four schools would close at the end of the school year: Sharp Elementary, Wiggins College Preparatory Lab School, Cramer Elementary, and Yorkship Elementary in Fairview. Three of the schools are more than a century old and all need repairs, she said.

Students who attend those schools would be guaranteed a spot in a traditional district school, McCombs said. Courtesy busing, typically provided for students who live two miles from their schools, also would be provided, she said.

» READ MORE: Camden may have to close some schools, Superintendent says

Her plan would reconfigure grade levels and bring back middle schools. Students in Grades 6-8 would attend Davis School and Creative Arts High School, which would be converted into a middle school.

Union leaders oppose the closings and have appealed to the state Department of Education to intervene. They blocked a move by McCombs in 2019 to close two schools.

“Closing schools is not the way out of a financial bind,” said Camden Education Association president Keith Benson. “I don’t trust the financial scenario she’s painting.”

McCombs defended the plan at a school board advisory virtual meeting Tuesday night and showed pictures of needed repairs. Board member Elton Custis opposed the closings. The nine-member board has no voting authority because of the state oversight; the decision rests with McCombs, subject to state approval.

In an online chat, commenters largely expressed opposition to the closings. Some parents said they only learned about the closings when word began leaking Tuesday after McCombs met with school officials.

Maria Funches said the district was more “worried about trying to do away with public schools instead of making sure no child is left behind.”

Sue Cavallo Bowen wrote: “Start putting students first! You are destroying our community during a pandemic.“

The closings included schools that were not included in two proposals presented by a planning committee. McCombs said she reviewed the recommendations and had to consider other factors.

Under the latest plan, grade levels in schools would be reconfigured from the current K-through-8 and 9-to-12 model to K through 5; 6 to 8; and 9 to 12. McCombs said the change would reduce teacher vacancies and help the district better compete with charter and Renaissance schools.

Camden’s enrollment has dropped since a state takeover in 2013. The city’s eight charter schools enroll 4,188 students, while 12 Renaissance schools have 5,449 students.

Union leaders believe the district would drive more students from traditional public schools because some neighborhoods would be impacted.

“Traditional public schools are almost no longer a choice for parents,” said Davida Coe-Brockington, president of the Camden City Principals and Administrators Association. “It’s an assault on traditional public education.”

» READ MORE: Katrina McCombs appointed new Camden schools chief amid fiscal troubles

In a statement, Mayor Frank Moran expressed support for the closing. He said taxpayers in the economically distressed city cannot help close a budget deficit. McCombs has said the state has advised the district it would not receive additional funding.

“Our students deserve a better learning environment,” Moran said.