In the last year and a half, Camden School Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young has missed 182 days of work - about the length of a school year - because of a chronic illness.
Hired 41/2 years ago, Young has been out for 221 days during that time, though district records show she used 75 days of vacation and personal time toward that leave.
In an interview Sunday, she would not describe her ailment but said she planned to return to work Feb. 1. She will retake charge of a district besieged by failing schools, low graduation rates, and truancy - and new concerns among parents and others about its leadership.
"Any CEO who is out one-third of the time is devastating to any organization," school board member Barbara Coscarello said.
"She's not very visible, and that's the biggest complaint I hear," Coscarello said.
Some critics, including parents and employees, say they worry not only that Young's absenteeism will continue but also that her leadership has been too weak for the troubled school district.
"For me, it's how can you have an individual who . . . is supposed to be the leader but most of the time is not there?" said Kevin Barfield, president of the parent advisory council. "It's really disappointing for me. I was on the panel that interviewed her."
During Young's years as superintendent, students have continued to perform poorly on state standardized tests, and 23 of the 26 schools have been put on the new priority list of the 70 worst-performing schools in the state.
Most recently, the state has launched an investigation into reports of inaccurate accounting of violent incidents in the district.
"In her four years, what has [she] done?" said one district employee who asked to remain anonymous because employees are not allowed to speak with reporters. "We are running on autopilot."
The 61-year-old Young's most recent leave of absence, which the board approved in October, is up Feb. 1, and approval of her return is on the agenda for the board's meeting Tuesday.
"I should be in full form when I get back," she said after explaining that she believes her health condition is under control.
This is not the first time Young has left her duties to take care of her health.
Before she arrived in Camden for the 2007-08 school year, Young worked for decades in the Philadelphia School District, starting as a teacher and rising to principal and regional superintendent.
In 2002, while principal of William Penn High School, Young missed close to three months of work. She was also out for a month and a half in 2004 while principal of Audenried High School, according to district records.
Young said those lengthy paid absences were related to her current illness.
Records show that once she arrived in Camden, in July 2007, she took hardly any vacation or sick time her first two years.
In the 2009-10 school year she took eight paid sick days. In 2010-11, she took 53 days of paid sick leave, along with 25 vacation and personal days. She has been out close to 100 days, half of them paid, in 2011-12. (If she returns Feb. 1, she will have been be out 105 days.)
Deputy Superintendent Reuben Mills, named acting superintendent in October, has been receiving a stipend for the change in title.
"There are people who are more than competent" left to run the district during her absence, Young said. "The deputy superintendent and assistant superintendent know all the goals."
Depending on the outcome of the state's Quality Single Accountability Continuum evaluation, expected to be released by the spring, the district could face a state takeover. Gov. Christie said recently he did not want to take over Camden schools but "won't relinquish my authority."
Asked if she was concerned about that prospect, Young said, "It's all politics," adding that the state was already involved in the district.
"I don't have a problem with it. I really don't," she said.
Young says change was in the works.
"It's a long overhaul because of the type of communities students come from and have to deal with. . . . There are a number of homeless students, and we have to look at all of that," she said.
As measures of her success, Young said the district had increased the number of schools that made adequate yearly progress (AYP) under federal No Child Left Behind guidelines, balanced its budget, and consolidated underpopulated schools to save money.
The consolidation last year was strongly recommended by the state.
More than 90 percent of this year's $352.7 million budget is made up of state money. One measure of improvement was the 2010-11 audit, which found only a handful of deficiencies compared with dozens in previous years.
The improvements were the result of teamwork among the business administrator, the school board, and state officials, said Mike Azzara, the state's fiscal monitor for the district.
Though the number of schools that did not make adequate yearly progress decreased in Young's second year as superintendent - from 24 in 2007-08 to 21 the next year - the number has increased, with 24 out of 26 schools missing the mark in 2011.
When Young was hired, she promised to "make a difference," Barfield said. Young now makes $244,083, one of the highest superintendent salaries in the state.
"I hope that she and her team are able to live up to the expectations," School Board Vice President Martha Wilson said at the time.
In 2010, 57 percent of Camden high school seniors graduated. In 2008, 66 percent graduated.
Young and her defenders, who include the board's president, Susan Dunbar-Bey, say she inherited a wide range of issues and problems.
"It takes five or 10 years to turn a district around," Dunbar-Bey said. "We're not miracle workers."
Mayor Dana L. Redd, who chairs the committee that approves the district budget, said she was concerned about the district's current state. Some in the district have been resistant to change, she said.
"It's important to have leaders who are willing to be innovative," Redd said.
The current leadership, she said, "leaves much to be desired."