CAMDEN, NJ— With a $27 million budget gap, school closures and job cuts looming, the Camden City School District today announced that it will close Veterans Memorial Family School and Bonsall Annex Preschool and consolidate others for the 2019-20 school year.
At the Camden school board’s March 26 meeting, Acting Camden City School District Superintendent Katrina McCombs said the school district had requested $27 million in emergency state aid from the New Jersey Department of Education to close the budget gap, warning of "drastic" closures and layoffs.
On Wednesday, McCombs said that even if the school district were to receive the full $27 million, it still wouldn’t be enough to solve the long-term enrollment and facility issues some of Camden’s schools face.
“In order to keep resources in the hands of teachers and students — we must make changes for next year,” McCombs said in a statement. “This has been an excruciating time for me to come to these decisions — and I know how difficult a school closure can be — because I have had to close several schools myself.”
“Yet, I know that it is essential for our long-term sustainability. To ensure we are doing what is right for our students, we need to make choices that give our students as many resources as possible to support their education — even if that means in fewer school buildings.”
To address those enrollment and facility issues, McCombs said that general education students in kindergarten through eighth grade at Veterans Memorial School will move to Davis Elementary School for the 2019-20 school year, and bilingual Veterans students in sixth through eighth grade will move to Cramer Elementary School, which will begin development for a dual language academy for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
According to McCombs, Veterans Memorial School would need $14 million in investment to stay open.
The new configuration will also form a new early childhood development center at R.T. Cream School, which will have 12 pre-K classes made up of pre-k students from R.T. Cream, H.B. Wilson and Bonsall Annex Preschool. Bonsall Annex Preschool will close, and R.T. Cream students in kindergarten through fifth grade will move to H.B. Wilson Elementary School, and R.T. Cream students in sixth through eighth grade will move to Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy. Kindergarten students at the Early Childhood Development Center in Parkside will move to the neighborhood school.
The closures are not contingent on state aid, the district said, and is currently looking at anywhere between 50 to 200 fewer positions across the district.
“We are trying to save as many staff positions as possible, as our staff are our biggest asset ... as the budget and staff transitions are finalized (including resignations and retirements), we will know exactly how many staff would be impacted by a reduction in force,” the district said in a statement.
The school district’s plans was shared with impacted staff this week, and district leadership will meet with parents and community members to try and create a smooth transition and offer support with families with enrollment needs.
Wednesday afternoon, seven community advocates for Camden public schools met McCombs in a meeting that lasted around one hour and 15 minutes and was described as respectful and open.
Following the meeting, four of the community members — Pastor Amir Khan, Vida Neil Rosiji [candidate for Camden’s Ward 3 seat], Keith Errol Benson and Kevin Barfield — announced a list of demands they handed to McCombs that 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.”
“We feel what they are doing is they are strategically positioning themselves to see where they have the children, and the best way to get children to come over to the charter and renaissance schools is to close public schools,” Khan said. “How do you close them down? Don’t give them proper maintenance and don’t give the proper support.”
“Closing Cream school would mean that the parents from Centerville have to travel to another part of town or send their kids to a charter school,” said Neal Rosiji. “We don’t believe in charter schools, some parents still believe in traditional public schools and we need to keep our public schools open.”
Khan also announced that a group of Camden residents, along with the Camden Parents Union, the Camden We Choose Coalition and the Journey 4 Justice Alliance will be marching from Camden to Trenton next week to demand adequate funding and equity for Camden schools.
“We’re hoping and believing that the [Department of Education] commissioner and the governor will look at this and allocate the necessary funds to allow us not to hurt our traditional public schools here in Camden,” Khan said.
Khan also said the McCombs told the group that she was asked to send to the governor and state commissioner of education the “worst case scenario” if the school district were to not receive the $27 million in emergency aid.
According to an internal memo obtained by TAPinto Camden, that would mean the school district could close six to seven schools, eliminate additional educational supports and afterschool programming such as athletics and other extracurricular activities and eliminate summer programming without the additional $27 million in emergency state aid.
The school district is currently waiting for its $362 million preliminary budget to be approved by the DOE, and for a decision on its request for an additional $27 million in emergency aid.
Large budget gaps are not a new problem for Camden schools. When the state took full control of the school district in 2013, it had a budget gap of over $100 million that led to layoffs, school consolidations and school closures.
According to a district spokesperson, for the past three years the school received a little less than $10 million each year in emergency aid from the state after a request made by former Camden schools superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard for $30 million over three years was granted in 2015. However, now those one-time infusions of cash have run out.
McCombs also noted Wednesday that there still is the possibility for a $30 million facilities bond measure and approximately $120 million in requests for the School Development Authority that could help repair a number of Camden schools.
Results of these talks will dictate all other financial next steps but, the school district said, it still needs to be proactive to “better position Camden families in these neighborhoods regardless of funding outcomes.”
“We know a high quality education is the best salve for many of the challenges our students’ face, and putting students first means putting every dollar we can into improving academic achievement,” McCombs said in a statement. “We know that in order to overcome continuous budget challenges each year, we must have an aggressive plan to align the number of schools we operate to the number of students we educate in district.”
“I am excited to hear about the new programs being presented, and as a parent, I also appreciate the district’s proactive approach in this effort,” said Bryan Morton, executive director of Parents for Great Camden Schools, in a statement.
“We understand that not all change is easy, but by communicating with parents and inviting the entire community to provide feedback on how to make this process work best, the district has put parents in a position to work as partners to ensure that all our children and families at these schools get the support they need to make this transition,” Morton added.
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.
The CCSD currently serves 7,360 students across 19 schools.
The CCSD invites any parents and families in these school communities with questions about these plans to reference the FAQ document on the district’s website, or to contact their local school administrator for more detail about upcoming informational meetings.
This article was corrected a 8 p.m. Wednesday night to reflect that a new early childhood development center would be formed at R.T. Cream. A previous version incorrectly stated that pre-kstudents at the Early Childhood Development Center in Parkside would move to R.T. Cream.