Camden High School will receive at least $50 million for an overhaul of its dilapidated building, a project that has been stalled for more than six years, Gov. Christie announced Tuesday.
The funding, which Christie said would come from the state Schools Development Authority (SDA), also will go toward technological upgrades and new programs, including vocational courses aimed at helping students choose a career.
"There's no reason that students who come to a place like Camden High School shouldn't have access to all of those things," Christie, flanked by Mayor Dana Redd, told a crowd of politicians, educators, and students in the school's yellow and purple gymnasium. "What's held them back is the building itself. Not the quality of the teachers, not the quality of the students, not the interest of the parents."
The funding is half of what was promised to Camden High by Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who in 2008 approved $100 million to replace the facility while preserving its iconic, castle-like tower.
In 2011 Camden High became one of more than 40 projects Christie shut down when he announced a restructuring of the SDA, which is responsible for construction and renovations in the state's poorest districts. At the time Christie characterized the program, created during the Corzine administration, as wasteful and lacking in proper procedural guidelines, and renovations to those schools around the state slowed to a halt.
Camden High, built in 1918, has grown costly to maintain and heat because of bad windows and a faulty boiler, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said. The building needs a new HVAC system as well as repairs to its roof and wiring systems.
The district has spent more than $5 million on repairs to the roof, electrical units, bathrooms, and more in the last 21/2 years alone, officials said, and is on track to spend another $500,000 on maintenance this year, not including upgrades made to the security system over the summer.
On Tuesday, Rouhanifard acknowledged that any major physical improvements at Camden High are still years away. Officials will put the project out for bids from architects early next year, he said, but renovations may not start for two or three years.
Changes in the school's courses may come sooner, he said. Some funding will go toward the creation of four independent learning communities, including the vocational program, some of which may start as early as next school year. Those programs will be designed to help students plan for college, vocational training, and more, he said.
"These programs will offer pathways directly connecting our students to careers," he said.
District officials said it was too early to say how much of the original renovation plan, which called for replacing most of the building, would be incorporated into any future designs. Rouhanifard said the state may spend more than $50 million on the project, depending on what is needed.
"We know what the floor is," he said. "We don't know what the ceiling is."
Sean Brown, a former Camden school board member who often has been critical of the district, on Tuesday applauded the funding announcement, and the district's goal of preparing students for vocational schools as well as higher education.
But given the history of the state's handling of Camden's schools, he said, anyone would be skeptical. Some recent state investments, such as putting laptops in each classroom, have appeared to represent symbolic gestures rather than genuine reform, he said.
"What looks good at a press conference might not always lead to the best results for students," he said. "I believe [Christie] really does believe this is the right idea, and in a way, it is the right idea. But I don't think it's necessarily thought all the way through."
That said, Brown said he believed the increased oversight of the SDA would result in progress this time at Camden High.
Combating skepticism remains one of the district's steepest challenges, said Rouhanifard, who said he believes a flawed government process is partially to blame for the project's failure to go forward in years past.
"We have tried to unearth the issues that have led us to this point," he said. "There have been so many broken promises in this building."