Inside an auditorium at Camden County College's downtown campus Tuesday morning, charter school advocates, state educators, and politicians discussed the future of the city's public schools.
One presenter with the New Jersey School Choice and Education Reform Alliance, the North Jersey group hosting the event, said that within a few years, the district's expanding network of charter and public-charter hybrid "Renaissance" schools could serve all the city's students, essentially abolishing Camden's traditional public schools.
Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard sought to distance himself from that message.
"We must make Renaissance schools a choice for students and families," said Rouhanifard, who was appointed by Gov. Christie in 2013 after the state took over the failing district. "But . . . flipping the switch and converting all schools to charters and Renaissance schools isn't the answer."
Several dozen protesters marched to the Camden County College building on Broadway on Tuesday, carrying signs decrying the city's Renaissance schools and calling for Rouhanifard's resignation.
The rally, organized by the group Save Camden Public Schools, was bolstered by protesters from Newark, another school district under state control. Heated controversy surrounded Newark's last state-appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, who resigned in June.
Later Tuesday, Parents for Great Camden Schools hosted Rouhanifard at a community event at Cooper's Poynt School. The group, led by activist Bryan Morton, presented Rouhanifard with a petition signed by 5,000 people demanding better school choices.
Since Renaissance schools were approved under the Urban Hope Act, seven have opened in Camden. About 2,200 students attend, with an additional 4,000 attending charter schools and fewer than 10,000 students remaining in traditional public schools.
Unlike charter schools, Renaissance schools guarantee seats to every child in the school's neighborhood, and must operate in new or renovated buildings. Renaissance schools are publicly funded but privately operated, and have contracts with the district mandating services such as special education.
U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) supported the Urban Hope Act when he was a state senator. The act gives school boards in several New Jersey cities power to approve Renaissance schools. His brother, Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, who also heads Cooper University Hospital, has been a key player as well. The state's first Renaissance school, KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, opened in Camden last year.
On Tuesday, George Norcross moderated a discussion about declining enrollment in the Camden public schools with politicians including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union), and Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald. Norcross said he believed the schools were improving under state leadership, but hoped the district would regain local control in the coming years.
Rouhanifard also spoke of progress in Camden: an improved graduation rate, more professional training for teachers, and trims in administrative spending, such as a reduction of the central office staff.
But some changes have created problems, Rouhanifard said. The central office staff, some hired by Rouhanifard, is "whiter" than before he arrived. When several public schools became Renaissance schools, some teachers were replaced by a less diverse staff.
Later, Rouhanifard said the district gives preference to local vendors and is working on ensuring that central office hires are more diverse.