Camden Teachers Union President Erupts Over Ed Dept-Approved School Closures

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A new petition on change.org is demanding the resignation of Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs. (Oddly, it doesn’t use her name but refers to her as  Superintendent “XXXXXXX,” despite the big picture of McCombs at the top.) The petitioners accuse her of various nefarious acts, including being “motivated by political survival, and not the best interest of community members, students, or educators,” “keeping missteps private,” “publicly repeating claims that Camden is losing students,” and being involved in the district’s universal enrollment plan that facilitates parent choice.

Who, you ask, could have written this petition?

Keith Benson, of course, president of the Camden Education Association  and paranoid conspiracy theorist who claims that the terrorist attack on 9/11 was a massive government plot and that that public school reform is a conspiracy among money-grubbing reformers and “oppressed natives” who are afflicted with a “psychosis” that leads them“to improve their own subjugated standing by attempting to join the ranks of those who do the oppressing.” (See here and here.) The petition is directed to Gov. Phil Murphy, Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, Murphy’s Chief-of-Staff, George Helmy, and his Deputy Chief-of-Staff Deborah Cornavaca (who happens to be a teacher union lobbyist). 

Here’s the back story: Camden Public School district is running an annual $40 million deficit, largely because the district, which once educated 15,000 students, has shrunk to 6,000 as parents choose to enroll their children in traditional public charters or one of Camden’s district/charter hybrids. If you have fewer students, you need fewer teachers and buildings, right? Yet according to the state database Camden ranks #1 in its peer group (districts with similar socio-economic profiles) in the ratio of students to teachers and in the percentage of total budget devoted to operations and maintenance of facilities.

In fact, Camden Public Schools has 19 buildings for its 6,000 students, which seems like a lot. Is it?  A couple of months ago I looked around for comparisons and found that Atlantic City has 7,000 students in 11 buildings, West Orange has 6,600 students in 12 buildings, Sayreville has 6,000 students in 7 schools, and North Brunswick has 6,000 students in 6 schools.

Superintendent McCombs and the School Board, with the support of city officials, decided to close 4 buildings (operating at 60%-70% capactiy and badly in need of repair) and put the district on a fiscally sustainable path. This action is in line with the Board’s strategic plan: afford[ing] additional resources to students and families to support their education – even if that means using fewer school buildings across the city.”  Benson — doing his job, of course, protecting union members’ employment — embarked on a number of exploits. Really, who could blame him? It worked last year when he convinced then-DOE Commissioner Lamont Repollet, now president of Kean University, to go along to get along. Here’s Bryan Morton of Parents for Great Camden Schools:

Last spring, superintendent of the Camden City School District Katrina McCombs announced she was going to make the tough but necessary decision to close a school to address a structural budget deficit. State Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet intervened and promised millions in emergency aid. As a result, this under-enrolled, academically struggling school with massive repair needs was kept open. The state basked in the applause of teachers’ unions committed to maintaining the fiscally imprudent status quo. 

(FYI, Repollet never sent the “millions in emergency aid” because he had no authority to do so.)

Yet Benson promised the same success with Allen-McMillan as he had with Repollet.  At the end of January he posted a self-aggrandizing video of his prowess at a meeting with the Commissioner and McCombs where he demanded the four buildings be kept open. He says she “could have said no, it’s over, but she did not say that.” She’s “giving us time to get the numbers” and “I feel very, very encouraged because she didn’t have to do that.” Then he posted an email to his members, exulting in his favorable reception by the Commissioner. Then he ignored the Commissioner’s request another meeting be kept quiet and instead maligned city officials as “slaves” and orchestrated an assault on the district superintendent as she exited one of the crumbling buildings. 

And now the petition, put up on Thursday and currently boasting 264 signatures. 

In fact, McCombs recently announced that, because Camden will get an additional $13.4 million in state aid from the federal stimulus bill, she will keep the 101-year-old Yorkship Family School open but close the other three on her list, Wiggins, Sharp, and Cramer. 

Petition or not, Benson lost.

Parents won, as did taxpayers. Currently Camden charter schools, both traditional and renaissance, have 1,470 students on their wait lists. That’s 25% of all students currently enrolled in district schools. Why are charters so popular in Camden. Here’s a hint, based on comparing third-grade student outcomes in math and reading at the three schools slated for closures with student outcomes at the nearest public charter:

The closest public charter school to Wiggins is Mastery McGraw. There, 16% of third-graders are proficient in reading and 22% are proficient in math.

The closest public charter school to Sharp is Mastery Cramer Hill. There, 22% of third-graders are proficient in reading and math.

The closest public charter to Wiggins is Hope Community Charter School. There, 44% of third-graders are proficient in reading and 67% are proficient in math. 

If you were a Camden City parent, where would you choose to send your child?

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