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Camden schools head warns that teacher layoff may be needed

The Camden School District could lay off more than 100 staff members this year as the result of $49 million in cuts that must be made to balance the budget, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said this week.

The Camden School District could lay off more than 100 staff members this year as the result of $49 million in cuts that must be made to balance the budget, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said this week.

Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Christie to lead the district after the state took it over in 2013, said the district must spend less to offset years of declining enrollment and financial mismanagement.

The number of layoffs will depend on how many teachers retire or leave the district after this school year, Rouhanifard told the city's board of education during a Monday budget hearing. Though the number could be as high as 350, he said 150 to 250 was more likely, based on past attrition rates.

Last year the district laid off about 200 teachers, but ended up calling back almost 100, Rouhanifard said. The 2015-16 budget also proposes cutting about 30 people from the central administration staff, an office that lost about half its positions last year.

The $349 million budget, which Rouhanifard will submit to the state for approval by next week, is $10 million less than last year's and includes the same amount of state aid - almost $280 million. Though it is the second year in a row for the district to face budget cuts, officials have said the majority of last year's $75 million shortfall was due largely to the district's misuse of one-time funds.

Mike Warren, a teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School and a representative of the 1,500-member Camden Education Association, which includes teachers and school support employees, said the fear of layoffs was already creating anxiety in the district.

"We're certainly hoping for the least possible number, because that will affect instruction, and ultimately it affects the students," he said. "So we're just trying to weather the storm."

Adding to that uncertainty is the fact that teachers in five of the district's 26 schools may be reassigned after the institutions are turned into public-charter hybrid Renaissance schools, a decision announced last week. Four of those aging buildings - Henry L. Bonsall Elementary, East Camden Middle, Rafael Cordero Molina, and McGraw Elementary - will get major renovations, while J.G. Whittier will close, move students into the new KIPP school in Lanning Square, and operate as Whittier.

While teachers can interview for positions, the schools will be under new leadership, and there are no guarantees that teachers will be hired to remain there. Anyone who is not hired to work in the new school, or anyone who chooses not to, can apply for assignments elsewhere in the district.

"Some of them have been teaching in these buildings a long time, and to be potentially uprooted like this is very unsettling," Warren said.

Warren was one of dozens of residents and teachers who filled the auditorium in Camden's Pyne Poynt Family School Monday to voice concern about the city's expanding Renaissance school network.

Some critics of the state's takeover of the school district have said they fear the goal is to eliminate Camden's traditional public schools, which Rouhanifard has denied.

This year, district officials said about 10,000 students remained in the city's traditional public schools, with about 4,000 in charters and just over 500 in Renaissance schools. District officials expect Renaissance enrollment to explode next school year, Rouhanifard said Monday, with more than 2,000 students enrolled.

Camden had about 16,000 students in charters and traditional public schools in 2013. According to the district's projections, that number would drop to under 9,000 next year.

The district has budgeted about $58 million in transfers to charters, and $39 million in transfers to Renaissance schools, both of which are increases over last year.

Under the Urban Hope Act, nonprofit entities can build Renaissance schools with the state providing up to 95 percent of per-pupil costs. Those schools can hire companies without public bidding for a range of services, including staffing, management, and bookkeeping.

Rouhanifard said partnering with Renaissance operators Mastery, KIPP, and Uncommon will enable the district to update its crumbling buildings, which require thousands each year in repairs and maintenance.

"Those five buildings, to some degree or another, are all money pits," he said.

Unlike charters, Renaissance schools have contracts with the district mandating that they provide wraparound services for students, they guarantee seats to every child in the school's neighborhood, and they are required to operate in new or significantly renovated buildings.

Rouhanifard also has begun an outreach campaign among those who will be affected by the new partnerships, and spent part of Tuesday going door to door to talk to families about Renaissance schools. The approximately 1,100 students who attend the five schools can also choose to attend other traditional public schools, and the district will provide transportation for those who need it.

Some who attended Monday's meeting said they wished the schools would expand faster, and urged others to keep an open mind.

"Mastery might not be the best for everyone," said Yonita Martin, a mother. "But if you don't give the Renaissance schools a chance, you won't know."