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Camden, state far apart on school funding

State officials, growing tired of the Camden School District's requests for more money, sent a letter to the superintendent this week, demanding a partial spending freeze and a more conservative budget proposal for next year.

State officials, growing tired of the Camden School District's requests for more money, sent a letter to the superintendent this week, demanding a partial spending freeze and a more conservative budget proposal for next year.

Gov. Corzine's revamped school-funding formula calls for Camden to receive a 2 percent increase in aid in the 2008-09 school year, for a total aid package of $279.5 million. Camden's budget proposal, however, counts on an additional $19.5 million from the state.

The Camden district is the biggest in South Jersey, with 15,400 students, and it has been under state oversight since 2002, when the legislature gave New Jersey education officials sweeping authority over district spending.

Corzine, who visited Camden High School yesterday to tout state efforts to create summer jobs, said funding negotiations with Camden would continue. "We want to make sure we're as cooperative as possible," he said.

But in a stern letter sent Tuesday from the state education commissioner's office to Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young and school board President Sara Davis, the district was accused of missing "a number of agreed-upon submission dates" for a reduced budget.

The letter says the Department of Education had met with district officials and "presented several options for the district's consideration for more efficient operations," but the district still exceeds limits on administrative costs.

Camden is the only so-called Abbott district in New Jersey with a 2008-09 budget that the state has not yet approved. A new plan must be submitted by June 11.

Under state law, Camden's property taxes cannot be raised, and about 85 percent of its school funding comes from the state. But with that money comes state control, including a fiscal monitor with veto power over any district move involving money.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, the monitor, Nicholas Puleio, overturned 15 board-approved expenses. Most dealt with out-of-state workshops and meetings for staff.

It was also announced that all non-critical personnel appointments and spending would be vetoed until Camden presents a budget that works within the state's restrictions.

Those restrictions will likely mean layoffs, said Kenneth McIntosh, head of the city's teachers union.

"It's going to present a lot of problems," McIntosh said. "We have a lot of needs. Exactly where we're going right now? Not sure."

Davis said the district and state were trying to "work things out."

"The children of Camden need so much, like kids everywhere, but here you have so much which should have gotten here and hasn't gotten here," she said.

Business administrator James Devereaux, who is in charge of drafting the budget, declined to comment on the accusations in the letter.

He said the good news was that the district was running a surplus this school year. With that money factored in for next year, the state and district are between $11 million and $15 million apart, he said.

"Clearly, significant reductions are going to have to occur in this budget," he said. "There are no indications that the state is budging."

After meeting students at the job fair in Camden High's gym, where the back of nearly every bleacher seat is tagged with graffiti, Corzine spoke to reporters in the school courtyard. Above him, weeds sprouted from cracks in the building.

"One doesn't need to be a rocket scientist to understand the great, great need here. You don't have to walk any further than the front of this building," Corzine said, referring to scaffolding on the building façade.

But, the governor said, the needs of Camden's schools must be balanced with the reality of New Jersey's finances.

"We have cut doggone near everything across the board except for education," he said. "We're trying to get the right balance of investment in the future and living within the constraint of not spending the money that's not coming in. For too long, the state has lived off borrowing."

Corzine instead focused on the good news: After hundreds of summer jobs were cut last year, a new state program called Summer HEAT might help get jobs for as many as 700 Camden teens.

"This is the kind of thing the community can feel good about," he said. "All of us can."

One student at the job fair, graduating senior Stephanie Velez, 18, said she already felt good.

"It's crazy because we don't normally have things like this," she said. "It's a good opportunity."