Nine Camden schools could get a share of nearly $66.7 million in federal funds awarded to New Jersey to help turn around the state's lowest-performing schools.
But the money would come with a catch: The problem schools may have to be closed, converted into charter schools, and have their principals and at least half their teachers replaced; or, at the least extreme, get a new principal and implement various changes.
The money headed to New Jersey is part of $3.5 billion in School Improvement Grants. As part of their application, states had to identify schools in the lowest-achieving 5 percent. In New Jersey, 32 schools were named.
Districts with those schools will have until mid-April to apply to the state for between $50,000 and $2,000,000 a year for three years. It is a competitive process, and districts must indicate which of four models for change they will implement.
"This latest infusion of federal dollars presents us with a unique opportunity to transform New Jersey schools that exhibit the greatest need for fundamental change," state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler said in a statement.
School improvement money is not new, but the amount has been significantly increased under the Obama administration, according to Willa Spicer, state deputy education commissioner. Also new, she said, is requiring districts to specify one of four change-making options.
In South Jersey, Camden can apply to turn around seven elementary and middle schools, as well as Camden and Woodrow Wilson High Schools. On the state's list, there is also one charter school and several other districts, including Asbury Park, Trenton, and Newark.
Camden would have to commit to dramatic changes. Districts with nine or more schools on their state's lowest-performers list can implement the least severe change model in no more than half of the schools.
Yesterday, it was not clear if Camden would seek the funds.
Recently, the district learned it would be getting a $15 million cut in state aid next year, on top of a midyear cut of $8 million. Last week, the board approved a tentative budget that could eliminate more than 300 positions and close two schools.
One of those schools, South Camden Alternative School, is on the state's list of lowest performers. The other, William F. Powell Elementary, is not on the list.
Because of union bumping rights, there are likely to be a lot of staff changes in the schools, said school board member Theo Spencer, who did not seem convinced that Camden should seek the federal money.
"Because of our current budget situation, we're already making drastic changes," Spencer said. "To make more drastic changes for a couple of dollars, I'm not so sure what that would be worth."
To board member Jose Delgado, the federal money Camden could get pales in comparison with the state aid the district is losing. He said he doubted the turnaround models would be workable or result in real change in Camden.
"You let the principal go, but he's got tenure. What do you do with the principal?" he said. "You let the teachers go, but they have tenure. What do you do with the teachers?"
Richard Vespucci, a state education spokesman, said districts such as Camden have options, including professional development, finding a better fit for staff in other schools, or moving to take away tenure.
Board member Barbara Coscarello said she was willing to consider applying.
"We're interested in any opportunity for increased funding," she said.
According to the federal Department of Education Web site, the states will be awarding individual districts their shares of the funds in May. The districts are then supposed to start implementing their proposals so that changes will be in place in the fall.