Camden Schools Reopen But Jersey City Schools Will Stay Closed Until September: Why?

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Yesterday in Camden, district kindergarten-2nd grade students were welcomed back to in-person classes with “clean versions of hit pop songs, celebratory fire trucks and a flashing three-wheel, two-seat police vehicle called a Slingshot” as Superintendent Katrina McCombs followed through with her plan to reopen schools.

But yesterday in Jersey City, Superintendent Franklin Walker told the community in a robocall that schools would remain shuttered until September due to a “lack of staff.”

Why the difference? Both Camden and Jersey City are urban districts labeled impoverishedd “Abbotts,” although Jersey City would never qualify now with its median household income of $72,561 and a poverty rate of 18%. (In contrast, Camden City has a median household income of $27,000 and poverty rate of 37%.)

Both cities’ school districts are well-funded; in 2019 Jersey City had an total cost per pupil of $26,028 and Camden had a total cost per pupil of $28,219 (although both are dealing with budget cuts).

There the similarities end.

In Camden, McCombs plan had the full support of the school board, community leaders, teachers, and parents. (See this letter.) While Camden Education Association President Keith Benson continues to demand McCombs’ resignation, he’s a lone wolf because everyone knows he’s not about students but about union jobs; witness his histrionics about the pending closure of three under-enrolled schools. [Note to Benson: the money coming in from the Biden Administration’s stimulus plan can not be used to renovate those three decrepit buildings but must be directed primarily towards pandemic-induced learning loss.]

In Jersey City, Walker created his plan “without any formal input from the Jersey City Board of Education trustees” and he did not have support from community leaders and teachers. Here’s pushback on his concession to union actions:

  • In a Facebook post, Mayor Steven Fulop called Walker’s acceptance of defeat “a failure in leadership,” adding, “I struggle with the fact that our Jersey City public schools couldn’t figure out some version of in-person learning when Newark, NYC, Hoboken, and virtually every surrounding district has been able to reinstitute some form of in-person learning.”
  • Ward E Councilman James Solomon told the Hudson County View, “as a parent who spent part of the pandemic juggling work and kids, I know that the parents, students, and teachers deserve better than Jersey City Public Schools’ cancellation of hybrid school. Once the commitment to reopen was made, people planned around it.”

Walker felt he had no choice to keep children from in-person learning for what will end up being an 18-month district closure because last Thursday, when staff members were supposed to show up for professional development, 458 called in sick and on Friday “close to 500” did. Franklin explains,

The numbers do not include medical and maternity leave that routinely effects the district. We can’t open schools with teachers and paraprofessionals working from home. Over 400 people submitted requests based on increased risk for COVID-19. While they’ve met the medical requirements, the district cannot provide in-person instruction without them and does not have substitutes to work in schools while they work from home.

Question: How is this different than a strike?

Then again, Jersey City has a long history of governance problems.

This past November, former board president Sudhan Thomas was indicted on charges of embezzlement, money laundering, and fraud. During contract negoations with the teacher union in 2019, Thomas, along with current board member Lorenzo Richardson, allegedly negotiated privately with the union, giving them a sweetheart deal. Senate President Steve Sweeney weighed in:

The agreement is a giveaway to the local NJEA, and the consequences for the students, taxpayers and teachers of Jersey City will be harsh and they will be real,” Sweeney said. “The givebacks will take money out of the classrooms, force teacher layoffs and make the schools budget problems worse.

In other words, Camden Superintendent McCombs leads her district. Jersey City Superintendent Walker is led by others, specifically the school board and the teacher union, which function arm-in-arm.

What’s better for kids? All we know is that Camden students are in school while Jersey City students sit at home.



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