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Camden school superintendent says he's stepping down from 'the best job I've ever had'

Camden school chief Paymon Rouhanifard announces resignation.

Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard observing a group of 7th-grade students as they work together to build a card tower.
Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard observing a group of 7th-grade students as they work together to build a card tower.Read moreSTAFF

Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, an outsider brought in to transform the failing South Jersey school district, announced plans Wednesday to step down from the state-run school system he has led since 2013.

Rouhanifard, 36, said he would leave his post at the end of the school year. He cited a litany of accomplishments that he said changed public education in the district he inherited after the state took control a few months before he arrived.

"I just think now is the right time," Rouhanifard said. "By any measure, Camden's schools are better than they were five years ago."

The announcement ends months of speculation about the superintendent's future in Camden under Gov. Murphy, a Democrat who took office in January. Rouhanifard was appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, who credited him with changing public education in the city.

"It's the best job I've ever had," Rouhanifard said. "I just can't imagine another job giving me the same sense of fulfillment."

Rouhanifard said he met in Trenton on Wednesday with Murphy's chief of staff and believes he had the Democratic governor's support.  He said he also met Wednesday with acting state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet and submitted his resignation. He later notified the district staff in a message saying in part, "This will be my last school year as your superintendent."

In a statement, Murphy spokesman Dan Bryan said: "The governor thanks Paymon Rouhanifard for his service to the Camden School District. We thank him for his leadership, effort and dedication over the past five years, and we wish him the best in his future endeavors."

Camden Mayor Frank Moran said he was saddened to see Rouhanifard step down. The mayor said he plans to ensure that the next school chief has Camden's "children at heart."

"Since Day 1, he's been a strong advocate for real change in our district," Moran said. " "He did leave his print on this education system and it has proven positive."

Critics, including civil rights leaders, however, believe Rouhanifard focused too much 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. The district's iconic Camden High is being demolished and its headquarters recently moved from a former RCA building on the waterfront to a vacant neighborhood school.

"So many tears have been shed and so many lives upended," said Camden Education Association president Keith Benson. "He's leaving and now we can move on and try to rebuild what he has torn down."

Months after the state took over Camden's troubled schools in 2013, Christie named Rouhanifard, only the fourth outsider to serve as schools chief, to run the district, which has long been plagued by poor test scores, a low graduation rate, and a high dropout rate.

Several years ago, all but three of the city's schools were rated among the worst public schools in the state. Today, eight schools remain on the list. Rouhanifard is also credited with improving the district's graduation rate from 49 percent to 70 percent and cutting the dropout rate from 21 percent to 12 percent in five years.

During his tenure, more Camden public school students enrolled in charter schools and Renaissance schools than traditional public schools. In 2000 those traditional schools educated nearly 19,000 students in more than two dozen schools. For the 2017-18 school year, there are 6,800 students who attend the city's 18 traditional public schools; 4,350 enrolled in 11 schools operated by charters; and 3,850 students in 11 Renaissance schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated by KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon Schools.

"It's been five long years of a lot of work," said Felisha Reyes-Morton, Camden school board vice president. "He's done some remarkable work."

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.

Rouhanifard, who was 5 when he arrived in the United States with his family from Iran in 1986, fleeing religious persecution, has often used his story as an example of the power of education to transform a child's life. He became an American citizen while in grade school.

In Camden, Rouhanifard, who lives in the city in a waterfront apartment, amassed a loyal following, especially among parents who wanted an alternative to the traditional public schools. He plans to remain in Camden with his wife, son and infant daughter, born three weeks ago.

"I'm just ready to reacquaint myself with my family and spend a lot of time with them," he said. "I  just need a little bit of a break."

Rouhanifard said his contract, which runs through June 30, 2019, required him to give 90 days' notice. His base salary is $213,360 a year. Although his name surfaced last year as a possible candidate for the New York City school chancellor's job, Rouhanifard said he has no immediate job plans.

"No matter where I am next, Camden will always be home to me," he said.

Some Camden residents hope the state will soon relinquish its control over the school system. Murphy and state education officials have not indicated how much longer Camden would remain under state supervision.

Rouhanifard said he would like to see Katrina McCombs, a deputy school superintendent and Camden native who worked in the district as a teacher and an administrator, named as his successor.  The appointment will be made by the governor.

"I hope that someone from Camden steps up to move our district forward," he said. "From here on out, it's in someone else's hands."