CAMDEN, NJ — Residents that have pushed to protect traditional public schools amid a district budget crisis can breathe a sigh of relief as one of the city's longstanding institutions was saved from being shut down.
Camden Schools Superintendent Katrina McCombs said Wednesday morning that Veterans Memorial Family School, previously set to be shuttered due to repair costs, will remain open for at least another year with a funding commitment from the state.
It was stated in early April that the work necessary for the 90-year-old school in the Cramer Hill neighborhood approached $14 million.
After a Department of Education meeting on Tuesday, McCombs had confidence that the state-run district will receive $6 million through an application to address the building's most pressing issues, including a new roof and HVAC updates, and cover staffing for the 2019-20 year.
Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet wanted to hold off on closing Veterans Memorial, asking district officials to use the year to determine a "long-term vision" for the district, McCombs said.
"So instead of each year doing one-off closures, (Repollet) wants us to really focus in on deep stakeholder engagement and build a solid plan to be sure that we are efficiently operating schools across the landscape of Camden," McCombs told TAPinto Camden.
The news to retain the school came at an advisory board meeting open to the public. Keith Errol Benson, one of a handful of schools advocates in attendance, called the decision a victory for so many in the city, whose "hearts are full."
Not long after the district initially announced two months ago that the school would shut down for the 2019-20 academic year, members of the community took action.
Vets students marched with signs on the front lawn that same week and spoke out against the plan. Keith Benson, president of the Camden Education Association, set out on a 40-mile walk to Trenton to urge those at the state level to provide the funding needed to keep the school active.
With the DOE's word on partial aid, McCombs acknowledged not every problem can be addressed. But it will be a good start for a building that hasn't seen "true maintenance done" for the last 20 years, she said.
Discussions with the state Schools Development Authority are helping to determine the priority of the repairs, she added.
"We want to make sure that the building gets the care it needs, even if it's open for one more year," said McCombs, who is most concerned about preventing mold growth and excess moisture to protect those with asthma. "And as a result of our engagement, we may find that it may not be a building we close in the future."
McCombs said during Wednesday's advisory meeting that the district will apply for another $11 million in emergency aid to close the gap in its budget, approved in mid-May. Officials slashed what was a $27 million deficit to avoid the "doomsday scenario," she said, which brought fears of having to lay off nearly 200 staffers.
The current total sits at 34 employees, down slightly from the layoff notices sent last month because of attrition, resignations, and retirements, she said. That does not include 21 custodial workers who will be out of work after a shared service agreement with Mastery Charter schools was terminated.
"Getting that money would help to ensure that we don't have to make additional staff reductions on top of what we've already done," McCombs said.
The aid can be sought out once the state budget is finalized, likely in early July, McCombs said, with notification of the decision made prior to September. An agreement with the previous administration that assured $9 million to $10 million each year is no longer active, she added.
"We have been given the commitment that this (process) will be expedited as much as possible," McCombs said. "We have the full support of the commissioner moving forward with the application."
Any funding obtained will not affect the district's other planned measures of closing the Bonsall Annex Preschool and converting the Riletta T. Cream Family School, a K-8 facility, into an early childhood center. Cramer Elementary School is also being repurposed as a dual-language academy for pre-K through sixth grade.
The five classrooms of 75 children from Bonsall will be shifted to the new Riletta T. Cream center this fall, which will also welcome preschoolers from H.B. Wilson Elementary. The 300 or so former Cream students in kindergarten through fifth grade will move to H.B. Wilson, and the sixth through eighth graders will move to Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy.
"This was something that was based on feedback from parents during our Listen and Learn tour and our own research," McCombs said. "We're moving forward with making decisions that are aligned with community feedback and what we know is best practice for students."
The finalized 2019-20 academic year budget, prior to emergency aid, was approved at $365.6 million. This is a decrease from the current year of $382.7 million.
Enrollment in traditional public schools is expected to drop from 6,358 students this year to 6,060 students in the fall, according to the budget. Renaissance schools, meanwhile, will see an increase of close to 400 students to 4,786. A slight dip in charter schools brings the total to 4,374 students, a difference of less than 50 students.
Since 2014-15, district school enrollment has steadily dropped from 8,180 students, while renaissance schools continue to rise from 543 students following their introduction to Camden.