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Christie to announce state takeover of Camden schools

TRENTON - Gov. Christie plans to announce Monday that he is taking the extraordinary step of putting the educational and fiscal management of the Camden School District under state control, The Inquirer has learned.

TRENTON - Gov. Christie plans to announce Monday that he is taking the extraordinary step of putting the educational and fiscal management of the Camden School District under state control, The Inquirer has learned.

As part of the takeover of what the state considers the worst-performing district in New Jersey, Christie will appoint a new superintendent and leadership team, shifting the school board to an advisory role, according to Christie administration officials briefed on the plan.

The Republican governor's move nonetheless has support from at least a few school board members and key Democratic leaders in the South Jersey political establishment, some of whom are expected to join Christie at the takeover announcement Monday in the city, officials said.

Camden will become the fourth urban district under state control, after Paterson, Newark, and Jersey City. This is the first takeover initiated by Christie, who will add the severely challenged district to his education portfolio less than eight months before his reelection bid.

Though the news will likely be greeted with relief by those who believe the district is permanently broken, critics will cite the state's previous - and largely unsuccessful - interventions in Camden schools, government, and law enforcement.

In an odd bit of timing, the takeover comes as Camden school board members were closing in on selecting a new superintendent. As recently as Saturday, they were interviewing candidates, and a meet-and-greet for the public with as many as three finalists was scheduled for Tuesday night, school board member Ray Lamboy said last week.

Lamboy, who served on the board subcommittee charged with finding a new superintendent, said he wasn't sure what the board had spent on the search. Some of the candidates have been flown in, and a search firm has been hired.

That process will now be moot.

Officials said a national search would be conducted to find a leader for the district, which has a 49 percent graduation rate, second-worst in New Jersey.

Three of the district's schools are the lowest-performing in the state, and 90 percent are in the bottom 5 percent. Less than 20 percent of fourth graders are proficient in language arts literacy, and just 28 percent of 11th graders are proficient in math.

State officials planned to file paperwork Monday morning with the Office of Administrative Law to intervene in the district for the takeover, expected to begin at the start of the next school year. Officials stressed that the community would be involved, with tours planned so Camden residents can visit high-performing schools elsewhere in the state.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) released a statement supporting the takeover. "We recognize this is a dramatic change, but its time has come. I know that, elected officials of both parties know that, and more than anyone else, the parents of Camden with children in failing schools know that."

A takeover has long been rumored as state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf has pushed the district for improvements. In a report last year, Cerf wrote that Camden's "unique" circumstances provided the opportunity for the district to radically transform itself by hiring a transformative superintendent.

At the time, Cerf and Christie could have taken over the district based on its abysmal scores in the state performance review known as Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC). The state gave the district failing grades in four of five categories: instruction and program (9 percent), operations (47 percent), personnel (19 percent), and governance (33 percent).

In lieu of a takeover, though, the state developed guidelines for how to turn around the "district in crisis." Failure to implement the recommendations within eight months "will leave the state no choice but to more aggressively intervene," the state warned.

That eight-month deadline is next week.

The state has long had some degree of control over the school system. Most recently, a state-appointed monitor has been empowered to veto questionable spending.

In addition, since the start of the school year, 12 state-appointed, state-paid employees have been assigned to a Camden Regional Achievement Center to oversee and improve 23 of the district's 26 schools considered among the lowest-performing in the state.

Those state employees would now become part of the district's new leadership team, a state official said.

Christie often speaks emotionally about the tragedy of urban children stuck in schools where they don't learn, and he has made improving education a centerpiece of his term in office.

But his policies have been controversial and set against frosty relations with the state's largest teachers' union.

Most significantly, he has sought to change the state's court-mandated funding formula to redirect resources from urban to suburban districts. His argument is that money doesn't necessarily lead to educational success, and Camden is often used to make that point.

"Despite increased funding and support, student achievement in Camden is the lowest in the state," said an administration official familiar with Christie's thinking on the matter.

The state funds 86 percent of the district's $327 million budget to educate 12,000 district and 4,000 charter students. The governor's proposed budget would increase funding next year by $3.6 million.

The district spends $23,709 per student, more than $5,000 more than the per-student average in the state. The 9-1 student-teacher ratio is the lowest of large districts.

"The problem isn't a lack of funding," an administration official said. "The system is broken, and it's clear that additional state involvement is necessary to truly address the systemic problems and get the Camden School District on the right track."

But teachers' unions and other advocates opposed to Christie's approach to education have long argued that more resources are needed for urban students because they have greater needs. Advocates blame Christie for Camden's failings, saying he has forsaken traditional public schools for an expanded charter school system and the creation of public-private hybrid schools called renaissance schools, both of which drain funding from the district's budget.

Two of Christie's last three public visits to Camden revolved around such schools. He announced the renaissance school concept in Camden, then returned to the city to sign the bill authorizing creation of such schools.

The first renaissance school in the state is scheduled to open in Camden in 2014.

Takeovers do not come without controversy. Earlier this month, leaders in the Paterson and Jersey City School Districts called for an end to what they described as unsuccessful takeovers of their districts.

Christie has spent considerable time working in conjunction with Democratic Mayor Cory Booker on the state-run Newark schools, having joined him on The Oprah Winfrey Show to accept a $100 million matching grant for the district from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He also was involved in hiring the district's superintendent and making changes in collective bargaining in the Newark teacher contract to include higher pay for better performance.

In Camden, which has had state involvement in its schools and local government in one form or another for decades, some community dissent over the loss of self-governance is likely.

In 2002, New Jersey took control of Camden's municipal government in what was believed to be the largest municipal takeover in U.S. history. In exchange for $175 million in grants and loans that to this day have yet to be fully spent, Camden's mayor and council answered to a state-appointed chief operating officer.

The takeover, though, failed to reduce Camden's dependency on state aid, and its homicide and poverty rates remain as high as they have ever been. On his last day in office in 2010, Gov. Jon S. Corzine handed power back to city officials. Elected officials of both parties concluded the takeover was a failure.

The school takeover comes as Camden County is replacing the city Police Department with a county-run force.

That means Camden will be left without control over its two most significant and expensive duties: law enforcement and education.