COMMENTARY: Does Camden’s Teachers Union President Have the NJ Education Department in His Back Pocket?

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This is part of an email Camden Education Association President Keith Benson sent late last week to his members (or possibly just CEA leaders). Here, Benson celebrates his meeting last week with New Jersey Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan and expresses optimism that the Commissioner will overrule the judgement of Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs and the Advisory Board by forbidding local leaders from moving forward with their plan to resolve a budget crisis. 


Allen-McMillan is going to do some “deep digging!” he exclaims. She’s “gonna really look into it!” She buys his contention that McCombs’ slideshow at last week’s board meeting (of the four buildings the district wants to close that are covered in mold and rust and disintegrating ceiling tiles) was a “false representation!”

What’s going on here?

Currently Camden City School District is maintaining 19 buildings for 6,000 students because enrollment has dropped almost 60% in seven years as parents exercise choice and enroll their children in public charter and renaissance schools. (See here and here for more.) This drop in enrollment requires the district to downsize facilities and staff because, even though the state funds the district at a per-pupil annual cost of $28,219, it still is running a deficit of $40 million per year. So instead of maintaining 19 schools for 6,000 students, the district will maintain 15 (still way over state ratios). In today’s Politico, McCombs explains, “It would be selfish for me to know some of the conditions that exist, that we know we don’t have the funds to keep up with…and not make the hard decision to do something in service of what’s best for our students.”

But no worries, CEA members. Keith Benson has the DOE in his back pocket and — as per his job description as union president — is going to do what’s best for adults. And he’s not in this alone: He has his “NJEA guru” along for the ride, among other NJEA hotshots who will overturn the district’s math.

And this, exalts Benson, “will help us with our negotiations!”

That’s his endgame. Benson isn’t just visiting the commissioner because of the closures but is also looking for an edge in negotiations. That’s his job, right?

What’s most disturbing is that Benson may really have the DOE in his back pocket, which would be consistent with the culture of the department during the tenure of Lamont Repollet. I remain hopeful that Allen-McMillan respects the strictures of DOE oversight, as well as the will of Camden voters who elected the full slate of candidates who support school choice. Mike Yaple, DOE spokesman, explained the DOE’s role in Politico, “the state superintendent is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a state-operated school district. Those decisions are made locally. The Department provides support and technical assistance to state-operated districts when needed.” 

Camden’s school district didn’t ask for support or technical assistance. The head of the union did. Thus, Allen-McMillan’s interference in this local process would be an overreach of her duties.

Or not. Murphy spokesman Mahen Gunaratna gave Politico a different answer: “The Murphy Administration is deeply engaged with the Camden community, “ he said, and “is committed to undoing the damage of the Christie era by fully funding our public schools and giving our educators the respect and support they deserve.”

Undoing the damage in Camden? You mean the expired legislation called the Urban Hope Act, sponsored by Democratic legislators, that allowed for the creation of district-charter hybrids in Camden called Renaissance schools, overwhelmingly favored by parents? You mean the changes that have resulted in dramatic increases in student growth for all Camden students, those that Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, calls “among the most significant and inspiring in recent education history”?

Yes, let’s roll back history a decade to pre-Urban Hope Act corruption and failure in Camden, when half the students never graduated from high school and an independent analysis found that the school board was “in denial” about dismal student outcomes.

Does Benson really have the DOE in his back pocket? Will Allen-McMillan kowtow to his requests? I hope not. As Naeha Dean, the district’s former chief of staff, now executive director of the Camden Education Fund, told Politico, “What’s at stake is kids’ lives.” 

One other note: A couple of years ago I completed my fourth and final term on my local school board. During those 12 years I chaired the negotiations committee a half dozen times or so, and I’d be lying if I said I missed it. I’m too old for all-nighters, and negotiations can get tense (one time during a public meeting the union leader threatened to beat me up!). Mostly, though, these sessions proceed professionally and in good faith, with the impact on students front and center. One ground rule is no one — neither the three or four board members on one side of the bargaining table nor the union’s negotiating committee on the other — speaks publicly about deliberations until we’ve signed the Memorandum of Understanding.

But if Benson’s email (and Facebook video) are not some sleight-of-hand, then he’s eschewing that professionalism, clearly stating that going to the DOE for the purpose of overturning local control will give CEA an edge in negotiations.

Of course, there’s no way to confirm this actually happened. That’s because McCombs and Allen-McMillan are acting professionally, i.e., not posting Facebook videos about district business.

In the course of researching this story, someone said to me, “This is the Keith show.” 

It’s surely not the show for Camden students.

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1 Comment

  • Darrel Mesey, February 9, 2021 @ 9:57 pm Reply

    Interesting and extremely byassed look at the situation. I guess you missed the Facebook videos that McCombs posted encouraging families to enroll in charter and other schools, telling them that their schools were closing. She was asked to remove them because they were un professional. Quite the opposite of what you state in this article. You have also failed to mention that the school closures are forcing some families into charter and or rennasaince schools due to the distance. Not to mention the jobs lost, not only teachers but families that work in the schools. All of this while administration collects bonuses. The mebtion of Christie adnin and Urbam act is a cheap shot because again you dont list all the facts. The private schools took many students and they choose the students they want. They offered new buildings and technology as well as pre and after care. However its not sustainable. They make money off of the students. They pay teachers and staff less offer less benefits and some have no pensions, resulting in big buildings but less quality education. The turnover ratio is substantial. Truthfully, several Camden public schools have raised their scores, including Sharp, Catto, and Davis. Our CEA president, over the summer, worked on a plan to stop the closures and presented it to MCombs. Roughly hold off another year and the new Camden High will be complete and it will house Woodrow Wilson students as well. That will allow the closure of Hatch and Woodrow Wilson. This plan, to my knowledge, has been refused. Why? During all of this teachers are over 900 days without a contract. We keep teaching and supporting our communities. 900 days!!! I would hope that my CEA president would bargain for my contract while at the same time save our schools. You mention him as if it was an evil thing to bargain for the rights of the people he represents. I take offense to that. The truth is that we are witnessing the systematic dismantling of a district. The almighty dollar and big business is winning again. Its sad. I didnt put the district in a 40 million dollar deficit, my fellow teachers didnt , my CEA president didnt, the students and families didnt do it. We didnt spend years of neglecting our schools needs. But I know who did. The politicians, the law makers, the business men. We pay the price. As a teacher for 16 years in the district how am I supposed to teach my students how to be moral, have values, and do the right thing in this immoral society?

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