CAMDEN, NJ — Tuesday’s Camden school board meeting, the first solely-live streamed gathering, offered an overview of where the district stands — most notably that the budget for the upcoming school year has yet to be approved by the New Jersey Department of Education or the county. 

A proposed 2020-2021 budget of approximately $290 million was announced earlier this year by Gov. Phil Murphy, but not approved in the city. A public hearing has also not been held to discuss it in detail.  

The status on the Camden school district’s request for 2019-2020 budget aid, last reported to be $43.9 million, has also yet to be issued — coaxing fears over layoffs and school building closures looming larger with expected shortfall due to the pandemic.

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“We are still working with the Department of Education to make sure that whatever budget we have to [operate] is one that is reflective of the times that we are in and also one that will help to truly set us up for sustainable local control in the area of finance,” Superintendent Katrina McCombs said during Tuesday’s virtual meeting which reached an audience of over 100. 

A Department of Education spokesman said there are no updates to announce at the moment, noting that the state continues to work with the district to stabilize its fiscal situation.

The initial deadline for the district's budget submission was March 23, but following the pandemic no new deadline has been released as the situation is considered ongoing. 

McCombs said when the district receives more information over the budget, it will be shared publicly even if a special meeting is called for. 

The superintendent also announced that a recruitment manager has been hired by the Camden City School District (CCSD) to focus on hard-to-fill positions in the district, a problem that has long-plagued the city.

Virtual graduations?

During the meeting, school board member Nyemah Gillespie asked whether a plan was in place for graduation ceremonies for Camden seniors. 

McCombs said the district support team is working with high school leaders to explore ideas like “virtual graduation ceremonies” but that nothing is set in stone as the district waits for word from the governor’s office.  

“When the governor comes back May 15, and provides us with guidance then we will know if we'll have to move into a virtual graduation ceremony,” McCombs said. “We would want to make sure that [seniors] have the memories that we all had when we graduated. And even if we have to create virtual platforms to do it, they deserve it.”

The superintendent said equal considerations will be made for other senior events, including prom.

A voice for Camden students

Poignantly capturing the audience during the public comment’s portion of the meeting, 10th grader Daniel Quinones voiced concerns over virtual learning from a student’s perspective. 

“I and others have our own problems at home already, that have made it hard to focus on school...It has been hectic and stressful,” the Freedom Prep Charter school student said while calling in. 

While outlining what has complicated remote learning for him at home, he pointed to a “laggy” internet connection, the mental strain of having to stay at home this extended period of time, financial hardships parents are dealing with, and problems with consistently communicating with teachers.

Quinones said one instance that exemplified the types of mental tolls faced by students was a friend who’s concerned over his grandmother following the death of a neighbor from the virus. 

“Even if I go to a charter school, that doesn't mean that public school students don't go through these things. It doesn't matter what school we go to. We are all students sharing this painful experience,” he said.

Quinones proposed passing students for the semester.

Superintendent McCombs said she “100 percent” agreed with Quinone's sentiment regarding the fact that a student’s school type shouldn’t matter when considering resources provided for support during the pandemic. 

“When it comes to grading I can tell you that not only myself but other superintendents across Camden County...we have been working together to make sure that we're coming up with standard ways to really figure out how to grade fairly during this time,” she said. “We in the district have given our school leaders and teachers guidance on something called ‘grading with compassion.’”

McCombs vowed to further work with renaissance and charter school leaders to ease the academic burden on students. 

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