In his final address, former Gov. Chris Christie gave a parting nod to Camden school chief Paymon Rouhanifard, praising his work as a "dynamic" leader who transformed the state-run district and changed the landscape of public education.
Christie credited Rouhanifard with improving the city's graduation rate from 49 percent to 70 percent and cutting the dropout rate from 21 percent to 12 percent in five years. Five months after the state took over Camden's failing schools in 2013, Rouhanifard was tapped as only the fourth outsider to run the district.
"There is still more to do, but a good public education is now very possible for most Camden students, something we couldn't say five years ago," Christie said last month in his State of the State address.
The remarks by the outgoing Republican governor brought fresh speculation about the future for Rouhanifard and Camden's struggling school system under his successor, a Democrat. Gov. Murphy has not signaled his plans for South Jersey's largest school district and its superintendent, whose contract runs through June 30, 2019. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment on plans for the city's top schools position.
"What the governor will do is a million-dollar question," said Keith E. Benson, president of the Camden Education Association and a vocal critic of Rouhanifard. He wants the district returned to local control, among other changes to stop the exodus of students from traditional public schools.
Also unknown is whether Murphy will move forward with a priority cited by his education transition team to put a freeze on new charter-school approvals pending a review. Currently, Camden has six charter-school operators. Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the state is reviewing current programs and "it's too premature to announce any specific decision or changes."
Rouhanifard, 36, says he plans to stay in Camden and hopes to serve out his contract. He said he met with Murphy's transition team and believes he has the governor's support, as well as the backing of the city's new mayor, Frank Moran. A spokesman for Moran said the mayor supports the superintendent.
"I love my job in Camden," Rouhanifard said in an interview Tuesday. "I deeply believe we are moving in the right direction."
With Rouhanifard at the helm, the face of public education has drastically changed in Camden under state supervision. More public school students are now enrolled in charter schools and Renaissance schools than traditional public schools, which educated nearly 19,000 students in more than two dozen schools in 2000.
"Parents want an option in their neighborhood. That's what we've delivered," Rouhanifard said.
Some parents have embraced the changes, especially the Renaissance schools, which have popped up across the city. Unlike traditional charter schools, they must accept all children who live in the eligible geographic area as well as provide services such as special education.
"There's been a lot of improvement," said parent Albert Banks, whose five children attend Renaissance schools. "A lot of the traditional schools were in disarray. I have to do what's right for my children."
The district has made gains since the days when it was home to 23 of the 26 worst-rated schools in the state, with few options for parents to send their children elsewhere, said Brian Morton, director of Parents for Great Camden Schools, an advocacy group.
"It's our belief that parents should have opportunities to send their children to schools that are delivering results," Morton said.
Critics, including civil rights leaders, however, say Rouhanifard has focused on creating new schools and not enough on making improvements to traditional public schools. In 2014, the schools chief elected to turn five of the city's most struggling schools into Renaissance schools and Benson and others worry that more may follow, despite the superintendent's assurances that more schools will not be targeted.
Benson, in regular social-media posts, cites a litany of problems in the district. They include: unfilled critical vacancies, class size, schools with heating problems and burst pipes, and too many students taught by substitutes instead of certified teachers.
"We want the superintendent gone. That's No. 1," said community activist Kelly Francis, a longtime member of the NAACP. "He's accomplished his mission. It's time for him to go."
Rouhanifard accepts the criticism, but says change was necessary — and was only a first step. "We still have a long way to go."
Unlike his three immediate predecessors, Rouhanifard did not rise through the ranks of traditional public schools or serve as a principal or assistant superintendent, and that rankled some educators. A Teach for America alum, he worked on Wall Street for a few years and later worked in the New York City and Newark public schools.
The superintendent, who lives in the city and serves an assistant coach for the Camden High boys' basketball team, has a loyal following. About 30 people attended a state Board of Education meeting on his behalf last month and several lobbied for Rouhanifard to remain in Camden, where his base salary is $213,360 a year.
The state can terminate its contract with Rouhanifard with 90 days' notice if it "determines that it would be in the best interest of the district." Should that happen, he would be entitled to accrued leave, benefits, and three months' salary for every year remaining on the contract or the remaining salary due, whichever is less.
"I think he's done a pretty good job," said Camden City Councilman Brian Coleman, who spoke to the state board. "He has always heard my concerns."
Francis and others hope the state will soon relinquish its control over the school system. Murphy and state Department of Education officials have not indicated how much longer Camden would remain under state supervision.
Last year, Jersey City became the first of the four state-controlled districts to regain full local control, followed by Newark and soon, possibly, Paterson. That would leave Camden as the only district under state control.