New superintendent focus of Camden school board meeting

At Tuesday’s Camden school board meeting, the new superintendent was the topic du jour, with some residents and teachers expressing their frustration to the board.

“It’s an insult to the Camden community when there are equally and more qualified candidates (in the district) who weren’t considered,” Keith Walker said of the superintendent selection process. Interim superintendent Peggy Nicolosi led the meeting.

Teacher union president Laverne Harvey complained about teachers and principals being held at a higher standard than Paymon Rouhanifard, who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science and is not a certified principal or superintendent. Rouhanifard was not at the Tuesday's meeting.

“Would his appointment be acceptable in an affluent district?” Harvey asked the board.

However, the board had no say in who Gov. Christie and state Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf chose. Since the state takeover in June, the board’s role was downgraded to advisory.

“I found out at the same time everyone else found out,” about Rouhanifard being selected, school board president Kathryn Blackshear told me after the meeting.

Blackshear and fellow board member Felisha Reyes-Morton were the ones who stood by the governor and Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd in support of the takeover when the announcement was made in March.

Reyes-Morton on Tuesday said though she had no say in the new superintendent, she “is open to” having a non-traditional schools leader.

Another topic that is still coming up at board meetings is the Urban Hope Act, which the board endorsed and used to approve a controversial renaissance school project when it still had governing powers.

The KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a charter-like school, was the only one of four proposals approved by the Camden school board in November.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Camden High School teacher Keith Benson accused board members of approving the KIPP school for political reasons.

At the time of the approval, the school board was comprised of three members of the Camden County Democratic Committee, of which Sen. Norcross, who sponsored the Urban Hope Act, is Co-chairman. Those committee members on the board -- board president Kathryn Blackshear, board vice president Martha Wilson, member Felisha Reyes Morton-- voted in approval of the KIPP proposal. Fellow members Kathryn Ribay, Sean Brown and Barbara Coscarello also voted in favor of the plan.

Board member Sara Davis voted against the deal, Brian Turner was absent and Ray Lamboy abstained.

Brown, Ribay and Lamboy are no longer on the board. They were replaced with Dorothy Burley, another County Democratic Committee member, and newcomers Jose Brito and Taisha Minier.

Blackshear and Reyes-Morton denied that there was any conflict of interest in their approval of the KIPP renaissance school project.

“I do what I want to do,” Blackshear said after the meeting. “I pray heavily about things.”

What she didn’t pray for, though, was the debt the board could incur due to their approval of the KIPP project.

Last week, Gov. Christie signed an Urban Hope amendment bill that puts new financial burdens on those urban districts that would host renaissance school projects.

Both Blackshear and Reyes-Morton said they weren’t aware of the new amendments until they read about it in the news.

“That wasn’t in original version,” of Urban Hope Act that the board endorsed, Blackshear said, adding that wasn’t happy to know debt would fall on the poor district. “Then I said ‘Hell, I’m an advisory board.’”

Decisions are now all up toRouhanifard, who starts working in the district Thursday.