CAMDEN, NJ — High winds and a heavy downpour Friday weren’t enough to stop the furor of Camden school parents advocating for the state to release millions of dollars in emergency aid to close the district’s budget gap.

With chants of “Where’s the money,” families and local civic leaders gathered at the headquarters of Parents for Great Camden Schools and outlined the negative impact wrought by the state not complying with the districts' $43.9 million request.

“I'm concerned that even if we received just a portion of what was promised, our district will still have a budget gap going into the next school year,” Carla Villegas, a parent of two at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, said at the rally. “This would mean vital resources such as programs for English language learners, transportation, special education, and after school programs could be cut.”

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Under a proposed budget by Gov. Phil Murphy, the school district is set to receive a total of $284,372,949 in state aid for the 2019-2020 school year, an additional $2.3 million compared to the previous year. However, the budget for the state-controlled Camden school district — which stands at $365.5 million — is shy of the district’s goal. 

The potential for layoffs loom, as well students having to deal with teacher vacancies and a lack of other resources, advocates said. Last year, the district was nearly forced to close a school in the Cramer Hill neighborhood.

At the end of 2019, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) awarded $2.3 million in emergency aid to five South Jersey school districts, but said it had not come to a decision on Camden.

The district can appeal to the state if it is faced with fiscal struggles.

During the rally, district students and parents held signs reading, “More Nurses Are Needed” and “Where’s the Money?”

Paper cut-outs along the wall read, “Transportation Matters,” “Teen Moms Need Money” and “We Matter.”

Waiting for an answer

Michael Yaple, a spokesperson for the state, told TAPinto Camden, that the DOE is working with the Camden city school district to improve school operations “at all levels.”

“Not only do we continue to work with the district’s finance office to review its budget, but we have been working to create a community school at Veteran’s Memorial Family School, we are providing resources to expand and improve the district’s Career and Technical Education programs, we’ve been facilitating conversations with the Schools Development Authority to discuss school-construction needs, and the Commissioner has personally met with the superintendent and education leaders in the community,” he said.

A spokesperson for the district did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Our schools which have been under the care of the state for these past six years, are now facing a crisis, which threatens to upend children's education for decades to come,” said Bryan Morton, executive director for Parents for Great Camden Schools. “It is really terrifying to have no clarification on where we stand at the moment... Take a second to think about, as a parent, picking your school for the upcoming year and not being certain if that school was going to be there.” 

During the last school advisory board meeting Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs said talks are ongoing with the NJ Commissioner of Education, Lamont Repollet.

“Parent and community advocacy on behalf of our students is always a powerful tool,” McCombs said at the meeting. “I have our team [doing] what is necessary in working with the department, but we also know that parents and community members have every right to advocate...until we get a firm answer from the state.”

Officials on the board also said they were drafting a letter to the state and recommended concerned parents do the same.

On Friday, Sean Brown, a former school advisory board member and active parent, called the state of Camden schools “a terrible situation.”

“It's ironic that in the only district that is controlled by the state is also the only district that doesn't fully understand how much money it will have to fulfill the budget for its current year, let alone the next fiscal year which starts in July,” Brown said.

Another parent at the rally, Rhonda Jackson, emphasized the need for parents in the district to unite, regardless of the type of school their child attends. 

“We're all in this together,” she said.

In Camden, parents have the option of district, charter or renaissance schools — neighborhood schools that are publicly funded and managed by nonprofits.

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