CAMDEN, NJ — The Camden School District continues to suffer from a shortage of teachers — what proponents believe is partly a symptom of a budget deficit yet to be stoppered.

In advocating for the state to make good with a request for $43.9 million, Aretha Turlington, a parent and advocate of Parents for Great Camden Schools, said that there are 15 substitute teachers at her daughter’s school.

“She is missing teachers in English, social studies and biology,” said Turlington, whose daughter attends Camden High School. “These are major classes my daughter needs to graduate next school year, or she will not be ready for college.  I don’t want a bad situation to get even worse.”

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Alisha Brown, a spokesperson for the district, said that there currently there are 29 full-time teacher vacancies in the district.

Between January and February, six Special Education teachers resigned in Camden — leaving 154 to service the portion of students in the district that require the services. Another Special Education teacher with 25 years in the area retired in December and one more will retire come July.

Three teachers will leave the district by the end of February: a Cooper’s Poynt middle school science teacher, a Forest Hill K-6 elementary school teacher and a Camelot Camden High School English teacher.

Noted during the January board meeting, “the district is working to decrease teacher vacancies by partnering with area colleges like Rowan University to recruit student teachers,” Brown told TAPinto Camden. “Working proactively to build teacher pipelines is critical to ensure student achievement and continuity of instruction.”

Hiring freeze

Although figures on part-time vacancies were not immediately available, recent sentiment from school parents paint a dire picture.

Physical education and health teacher at Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School, Karen Borrelli-Luke, said four months after a teacher retired they have yet to fill a key role at her school. 

“We knew back in April we were losing a science teacher to retirement…[the teacher] left in October, and we haven't had anybody in that classroom for those seniors since October except for substitutes,” she said.

Borrelli-Luke, who is also the 2nd VP of the Camden Education Association (CEA), said that she’s heard mixed messages about whether the school district was in a hiring freeze. 

“I'm privy to some conversations in which we were told that there's not a freeze for Science, Math and English. Yet we haven't had any science teacher since October,” she said. “Then I'm being told on another end from another [administrator] that there is a freeze...and then I'm looking in the Detail Report. We have money for promotions, and even other hires outside those content areas, so I’m confused.”

Last December, the New Jersey Department of Education awarded $2.3 million in emergency aid to five South Jersey school districts. However, a decision on the state-controlled Camden School District has not been doled out yet.

Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs said at the January meeting that the hiring freeze was indeed in place as an attempt to curtail some of the school’s budget shortfall internally. 

“[We’re] looking at every single vacancy that we have, and figuring out which vacancies we need to prioritize,” McCombs said. 

She added that she and her staff, “have constant communication about which positions are most critical that need to be filled even if they are not among the high-needs areas.” 

The same night of the meeting, the district’s Twitter page posted about job listings for teachers and paraprofessionals for the 2019-2020 school year.

Nationwide problem

A lack of educators is not unique to Camden.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates the shortage could reach 200,000 by 2025. In 2018, it was roughly 110,000. The EPI links the declining figures to pay, working conditions, and the change of curriculum.

McCombs said the district is actively working to recruit for science, math, special education and bilingual positions. 

She called the subject areas “hard-to-fill positions.”

“Other superintendents, my other colleagues in Camden County have been talking about this...as well as across the state,” McCombs said following the public comments portion of the meeting. “[Still] it does not dismiss us from the obligation of making sure that we do everything possible to develop those recruitment and retention efforts.” 

Parents for Great Camden Schools executive director Bryan Morton thinks that lacking the accounted for budget also amplifies the situation.

“If I am an educator looking for my first job or my next job, one of the first things I'm going to consider is where is their viability and longevity, right? So, if I'm looking at the Camden School District and seeing that positions are open, and then they’re closed, that people are leaving consistently and that there’s a hiring freeze, I’m not going to prioritize that district," he said. 

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