Principals, teachers, parents, and community members came out by the dozens Tuesday to meet the three current candidates for Camden school superintendent, a post whose next occupant is now to be appointed by Gov. Christie after a state takeover of the district.
While it is not known if Christie will choose one of the three, the Camden Board of Education moved forward with its superintendent-selection process by hosting a meet-and-greet and question-and-answer session.
All three candidates - Willingboro Superintendent Ronald Taylor; Denise Saddler of the Oakland, Calif., school system; and Heidi Ramirez, a former Philadelphia School Reform Commission member - pointed to their experience in dealing with state takeovers and charter schools.
The Christie administration said Monday it would take control of the district. Christie will appoint a superintendent and restructure the administration, as well as reducing the school board's role to an advisory one.
"I'm worried about what might happen to the teachers and principals," said Terry Chinen, mother of two students at Sharp Elementary School.
Chinen said she wanted her school to retain its leadership because her sons - one in first grade, the other in fourth - were doing well, but she said she had relatives who had nothing to show for a Camden high school education.
"My niece is 19 and graduated from Camden High School, and she can't count money, she can't read. And she has a high school diploma," Chinen said.
Larry Blake, a sixth-grade math teacher at Cramer School, asked candidates how they planned to create a culture of motivation.
"We need someone who thinks outside the box . . . who will take Camden to the next level," Blake said.
He was cynical about the responses, though: "They are telling me everything you want to hear, but you won't really know until they are here."
Taylor became interim superintendent in Willingboro in January 2011 and permanent superintendent that March.
Taylor said he is known as the "data guy" in Willingboro because of the "war room" he created to keep track of students' progress. He was able to improve high schools that had never made the benchmarks set forth by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"I give results quickly," Taylor told the crowd of about 100.
Before heading the Willingboro district, Taylor served as superintendent of the Newark district's West Region. That district was also under New Jersey's control.
Saddler was superintendent for the Oakland Unified District of 15 schools in North and West Oakland for five years before becoming executive leader of educational transitions for schools and community in the district in 2010.
She said she wanted to move across the country because of the "similarities" she sees between Oakland and Camden, both poor crime-ridden districts, but also because of "all the possibility in Camden."
Saddler worked with staff and community to improve Oakland schools during a state takeover that lasted about six years, she said.
Ramirez, who most recently served as the chief academic officer of Milwaukee public schools, said that district had a large number of charters.
"It's important to think of a portfolio of schools, and my job is to make sure we have the best schools in that portfolio," Ramirez said, referring to traditional public schools.
She said she would want Camden's public schools to be "as rigorous as affluent suburban districts."
Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd, and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D., Camden) met in closed session with the school board during Tuesday night's regular meeting after the candidate sessions.
The board invited Cerf and Redd to further discuss the implications of the takeover, an Education Department spokesman said.