What with its size and Facebook fortune, Newark gets all the press. But Camden is quickly becoming ground zero south for the Christie administration’s push for education reform.
This week, the district will be the first to seek proposals from nonprofit organizations — with potential for-profit partners — to build and run new schools in the city under the recently enacted Urban Hope Act.
Meanwhile, the state continues to prepare for some sweeping changes in the district itself, with 23 of the 28 schools so low performing as to be deemed Priority Schools, and subject to overhauls of their staff, leadership and even curriculum.
All this comes as the local Board of Education on Tuesday completed the buyout of superintendent Bessie Lefra Young after five years on the job, and announced it would launch a search for a new leader.
The board itself welcomed two new members last night as well and elected a new president, Kathryn Blackshear.
“A lot is going on, too much,” said Mo’Neke Ragsdale, a community organizer and mother of four sons who either attended or still attend Camden schools. “But we need solutions, real solutions, and not just more things that cover up stuff.”
There will be no shortage of efforts, that’s for sure.
The Urban Hope Act, signed by Gov. Chris Christie this winter, was written with Camden in mind, allowing up to four new schools to be created with the district’s agreement but operating independently. The lead agency in the new schools would need to be a nonprofit, but it can employ for-profit companies to build and manage the school.
The request for proposals (RFP) is expected to go out on Friday, with interested parties to submit their plans to the district by late June. The local board will then select the proposals it wants to submit to the state Department of Education and acting commissioner Chris Cerf, who will then make the final decision.
The state’s fiscal monitor in the district, Michael Azzara, said there has been considerable interest expressed to the state and the district from organizations that would like to participate in the program.
He said if all moves as expected, one or more new schools could be in place for the 2013-2014 school year. The new organizations will not be required to follow public bidding rules for the work, speeding up the process considerably.
“Given the feedback we have received from these companies around the country, they should be able to move expeditiously,” Azzara said.
A career compliance officer for the state Department of Education, Azzara conceded the lack of bidding rules made him “a little comfortable” but he said that is in the law.
“The whole purpose is to build schools quickly,” he said. “These [bidding requirements] were never intended to be efficient, they were there to build the public’s trust.”
Still, he said the RFP puts considerable disclosure requirements on the parties, including all subcontractors and any relationships that could pose conflicts of interest.
“It will be a very transparent process, just not subject to bidding,” he said.
The Urban Hope Act is just a small piece of what the Christie administration seeks to accomplish in Camden, with the work on the existing district schools a major challenge given the state’s track record.
The district has already seen varying levels of state oversight and accountability, from Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Stopping short of outright takeover, the interventions have been everything but that, including Azzara’s daily presence in the district offices.
Christie has said he would not support more state takeovers on top of those now in place in Newark and Paterson, and to a lesser degree Jersey City. But under the state’s monitoring system, with the district failing badly in virtually all categories, the opening is there for what will surely be aggressive state action.
What exactly that will look like remains uncertain. A leaked report from the state Department of Education, written last fall, presented one option of closing at least a half-dozen schools, but state officials quickly said the report was a draft and never in their plans.
Executive county superintendent Peggy Nicolosi is currently leading a team doing a new evaluation of the district that will be the foundation of the next strategies, likely to be carried out by the department’s nascent Regional Achievement Centers.
Not yet staffed, seven RACs are to be spread across the state to provide assistance and training for the lowest-performing schools, with one likely to be housed right in Camden.
Ragsdale, the Camden mother of four, said she has seen reports and studies done before, few that have amounted to much change for the district. And she’s not much more hopeful for this one.
But she said the departure of Young, the superintendent, will open a new chapter that the district badly needs. Young had actually not been around much, by all accounts, disclosing lengthy health issues. She will leave with a buyout package of about $62,000.
‘It’s probably good she’s leaving,” Ragsdale said. “But I’m a little afraid of who they put in. What we really need is a strong leader who first and foremost will care about the kids.”
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