CAMDEN, NJ— One Camden educator is walking 40 miles to advocate for the funding of traditional public schools in Camden.
Camden Education Association President Keith Benson left Camden for a three-day journey on foot Monday afternoon to the offices of the New Jersey Department of Education [DOE] in Trenton to deliver a message to the state’s commissioner of education in person — provide the necessary $27 million to close the Camden City School District’s [CCSD] budget gap and stop the closure of Camden’s public schools.
Last week, Acting CCSD Superintendent Katrina McCombs announced that Veterans Memorial Family School and Bonsall Preschool Annex school buildings will close for the 2019-20 school year, and R.T. Cream Family School students will move to other neighborhood schools and R.T. Cream will be turned into a new early childhood development center for preschoolers.
The closures and consolidations come as the district awaits the state’s decision on whether or not to award the district $27 million in emergency aid it has requested to close a budget gap — aid that if not awarded, could lead to even more school closures and up to 200 layoffs.
Benson is expected to be joined by members of the Camden Education Association, the Camden Parents Union, New Jersey Communities United and the Camden We Choose Coalition along different parts of the 40-mile journey, dubbed #Miles4Equity. The journey will culminate with a rally at the DOE offices Wednesday at 1 p.m. with groups from cities and towns from across the state.
“I’m really amazed and sort of speechless,” Benson said of the support he has received just before leaving the Camden Education Association office Monday to begin his trek. “I felt I wrote all the things I could possibly write, I’ve spoken on the issue as much as I possibly could, and walks historically symbolize things in civil rights movements. I felt like this was the next step, the next escalation of action.”
"We’re standing in solidarity, no more siloing — we’re working as one full coalition moving toward one ultimate goal: for us to be able to save our schools and also give our children equitable opportunities in the City of Camden and throughout the state of New Jersey," said Camden parent Ronsha Dickerson, national organizer for the Journey 4 Justice Alliance, the group organizing #Miles4Equity.
After a prayer led by Pastor Amir Khan, who was joined by a group of about a dozen community organizers, Benson was off. His first stop was out front of the Mastery Cramer Hill Elementary School where he would briefly meet with a group of about 10 students from Veterans Memorial Family School who were cheering him on.
“There are students who treat Vets as a home, and we don’t want to break that home up,” said Jacqueline Class, an eighth-grader at Veterans Memorial Family School who organized the group of students to leave class and support Benson. “When I graduate, I want to come back to see my teachers too.”
Students at Veterans Memorial Family School have been actively protesting the news. On Friday, they walked out of class and marched to the district’s administration building demanding answers.
In a written statement, Benson called the district’s plan to close Veteran’s Memorial Family School and consolidate R.T. Cream Family School "disgusting and unfair," blaming the district’s budget gap on the state’s takeover of the school district in 2013 and citing the district’s plan to close Veterans Memorial School and consolidate R.T. Cream Family School as a way to boost renaissance schools in Camden.
“I cannot underscore how stupid this plan is from a fiscal perspective,” Benson said in his statement. “It puts Camden’s public-school survival in imminent jeopardy by drastically reducing our district’s enrollment, the lifeline for state funding.”
Benson will walk around 15 miles to Beverly on Monday. Tuesday, he will walk from Beverly to Bordentown and then from Bordentown to Trenton on Wednesday.
“What we are witnessing here is the execution of a plan designed to steal the right to a true public education from the people and children of Camden. This is as true a civil rights issue as any we’ve ever seen,” Benson said in his statement.
Activists in Camden have also called for a freeze on any school closures and staff layoffs, and called for investigations into “the collusion and collaboration with outside organizations to not adequately fund our public schools in order to boost the charter and renaissance schools.”
Following the news of the impending closures last week, Acting Superintendent McCombs denied the decisions had anything to do with boosting enrollment at other school types in Camden.
“This decision was not based on anything other than preserving the traditional public schools and the rich legacy that’s here,” McCombs said. “I just want to make sure, as parents are making choices of school types, that our public schools are also a viable choice too. And this is the way to do it, by making sure we’re not operating too many buildings that we cannot afford to operate.”
According to McCombs, it would cost the district $14 million to complete the repairs necessary to open Veterans Memorial Family School for the 2019-20 school year.
Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget, 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 last year, or less than a one percent increase from last year.
As part of the 2013 Urban Hope Act — the legislation that established renaissance schools [public-charter hybrid schools that operate with autonomy of a charter school, but unlike a charter school, must serve the students in its neighborhood] in Camden the CCSD budget supports three different types of public schools — traditional public schools, renaissance school and charter schools.
The CCSD currently serves 7,360 students across its 19 traditional public schools.