First Camden town hall with Cerf and Redd a mixed bag

In a nearly three-hour question and comment marathon, Camden residents -- many with political aspirations or with union agendas – spoke about almost everything in education but hardly touched on the actual state takeover during Thursday’s town hall meeting to address the future of Camden schools.

Thursday night’s forum, which attracted about 200 people at Fairview’s Malandra Hall, was the first in what is to be a series of meetings for the community to address the changes coming to the school district. State Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf and Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd answered some questions and made their own remarks.

Redd started the meeting by prefacing that the meeting was not to point fingers because “we all have a responsibility” in providing a well-rounded education to Camden youth.

Cerf said: “Where we are is an unacceptable place,” referencing to the low graduation rate and test scores in the district.

As part of the state takeover of the district, which Gov. Christie announced last month, Cerf will appoint a new superintendent, as well as reorganize and replace top administration positions. Under the state's intervention plan, the local Board of Education will be reduced to an advisory role.

The Camden board, which has the right to challenge the state takeover, requested an extension of 20 days, until May 1, to respond to the state’s Order to Show Cause for the takeover.

At Thursday’s town hall, some attendees asked for better pay for teachers. Others asked for school vouchers. Then a few accused Cerf of wanting to bring corporate America into the city, which he later refuted as “just fantasy.”

Some of the teachers who got up to speak asked for more resources and consistency.

“I have been through five reading programs,” this school year, said teacher Rose Marie Jackson.

As some people criticized charter schools, Cerf said there are charter schools that are “lousy,” just as there are traditional public school that are also lousy, he said.

“The only difference is charters are not run by the bureaucracy of a district,” Cerf said.

Joyce Beverly-Scott, who is a New Jersey Education Association field representative for Camden, asked Cerf what he was planning to do about poverty in Camden.

Cerf said that poverty is the greatest predictor of a child’s future but that there are many things that can be done to have a child succeed despite poverty.

Then he cause a bit of an uproar among the crowd when he said he didn’t know how to fix poverty  but that “collectively we do a lot better,” in educating Camden kids.

Beverely-Scott responded that jobs are what fix poverty. Others throughout the night also addressed poverty and the lack of jobs in the city.

Hardly any parents spoke at Thursday's meeting. It was several teacher's union representatives, some of those the candidates running for city council and mayor and even a gubernatorial candidate.

Another town hall meeting with Redd and Department of Education officials will be held at Antioch Baptist Church on Monday and again on Thursday at St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral.