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Camden school board meeting hears protests

CAMDEN More than 200 protesters marched into the Camden school board meeting Tuesday night, chanting "Save our schools" and carrying signs, to protest ongoing and expected changes to the district.

CAMDEN More than 200 protesters marched into the Camden school board meeting Tuesday night, chanting "Save our schools" and carrying signs, to protest ongoing and expected changes to the district.

The group, organized by the teachers union, the Camden Education Association, and Save Our Schools New Jersey, was mostly teachers but included some students and parents, who held signs reading "Education Is Not for Sale" and "Layoffs Hurt."

They chanted from their seats while the board met in closed session, breaking into calls of "Please start the meeting" around the 90-minute mark. Then, during the roll call, some stood and turned their backs to board members.

The low-performing district is under state control. It recently outlined plans including the addition of two new "Renaissance" schools - district-charter hybrids - pending state approval.

The protesters voiced a number of concerns, chiefly the expected closings of public schools and addition of private operators. Some students said they attended in support of teachers they did not want to see laid off. Many teachers said a lack of attention has been given to improving public schools.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, appointed by the state in August, announced that as many as 400 people would receive layoff notices by May 12 to bridge a $75 million revenue shortfall in a district where the student-to-employee ratio is 9-1.

The main topic of the public portion of Tuesday's monthly advisory board meeting was updating the community on the first six months of the Camden Commitment, which Rouhanifard unveiled in January. He presented updates on safety, facilities, and teacher training.

The meeting was the last for Sara Davis, a four-term member and former teachers union president who has spent 40 years in education in Camden. A defender of public schools, she filed a successful lawsuit that went to the state Supreme Court arguing that female teachers should be able to use sick days for pregnancy-related illnesses.

Mayor Dana L. Redd said this month that Davis would not be reappointed, and selected Minister Wasim Muhammad to fill the seat.

The superintendent praised Davis for her service. She was the only member of the board to vote against recommending that Mastery and Uncommon Schools operate Renaissance schools.

As Davis walked onto the stage, people in the crowd rose, chanting "Sara, Sara!"

She said in remarks to the audience that she had been thinking about retiring at the end of the year, which had softened the blow of hearing she would not be reappointed.

"Even though there are people who probably think I'm very sad about it, I'm not. I respected it," she said. "The reason I respected it is because I am not a yes woman."

Davis said of Rouhanifard, "I like him. I just don't like what he does," and asked him to "please make sure you take care of our children." She asked that those in the crowd work to restore citizens' voting for school board members, who are now appointed.

Rouhanifard gave an update on two recent shootings affecting students, including one that killed a 15-year-old student in the district's Camelot program. The second shooting, on Monday, resulted in the lockdown of Creative Arts Morgan Village. Rouhanifard said police had made an arrest in that shooting.

In his report, Rouhanifard used slides that broke down the work toward his goals as "in progress," "on deck," or "complete." He said the district had created a special education task force, launched a survey that had gotten feedback from more than 1,800 parents, and secured $700,000 in federal grant money to expand wireless access.

Preschool enrollment in district sites is up 17 percent from last year, a step toward the 100 percent enrollment included in the plan.

Rouhanifard said much work remained, including revision of the suspension policy. He said far too many students receive five- or 10-day suspensions. "We don't want that to be a reflexive decision for every incident that happens in school," he said.

Smaller rallies have taken place on Thursday mornings at schools throughout the district. Union president Robert Farmer said that without a contract, which expired nearly a year ago, teachers are making themselves heard in this way.

"I understand the need for solutions, but this is not the solution," said George Knorr, an ESL teacher who has been with the district for 30 years. "I'm here to try to slow down the process of privatizing our schools for profit."

Kim Bartosh, who teaches English to freshmen at Camden High School, said she was concerned with the increased interest in private operators. "I just feel like the kids have a price tag on their heads, and people need to start thinking about what that means," she said.