Not taking over Camden schools would be 'immoral,' Christie says

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Gov. Christie listens to other officials after announcing that the state of New Jersey is taking over the school system in the city of Camden. Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd stands with him, at the news conference at Woodrow Wilson High School. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Full coverage in Tuesday's paper, here.

Gov. Christie formally announced this morning that he is taking reigns of the Camden school district, but he offered few details about how and when students, teachers and parents would see changes in what he considers the lowest-performing district in the state.

Instead, a soft-spoken Christie spoke of the need for saving children in America's poorest and most dangerous city through a "partnership." Talking to more than 100 reporters and community leaders on and off for nearly an hour, Christie never uttered the word "takeover."

"We’re acting because inaction is immoral," Christie said. "Let's treat all these children – and make all these decisions – as if they're our own children."

The South Jersey Democratic establishment allied with Christie is in full support of the plan. Democratic Mayor Dana L. Redd introduced Christie with glowing terms, and three school board members stood beside the governor to show they are backing the plan. 

But what is the plan? Most significantly, the current school board search for a superintendent is stalled, with Christie now in charge of appointing a new school leader. He said the board may have some valuable candidates whom the state would consider, but the board will now serve in an advisory role -- so members no longer have control of the process. Christie also gets to appoint three more members to the advisory board.

As part of the takeover the state Department of Education is sending staff members to Camden's central office, and the state is beginning a 90-day review of district practices in the areas of academics, talent, accountability and operations. The state is also taking "immediate action" to make sure teachers have curricula aligned to state standards, which they currently lack. 

And finally, the Christie administration vows to begin hiring teachers for the many vacancies that are now filled by substitutes.

Once the takeover begins, the state "will ensure that every child has the books, instructional materials, and technology necessary for a high-quality education, many of which are currently not reaching the classroom," according to a statement from the governor's office.

The decision to intervene, which Christie said he came to reluctantly, was described at the news conference as one of courage, political risk and moral calling.

"There is no one who has more political courage on a matter like this, and is driven for a passion of what is right, than this gentleman at my right," Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said of Christie. 

Community members, many of whom attended the news conference, seemed to range from optimistic to disappointed. If the governor wanted to really shake things up, why would the same faces be joining him on stage? Redd, for example, has appointed all of the members on the board.

Others wondered: How is this different from the many other ways the state has controlled the district for so many years? A state monitor currently serving in Camden can veto any decision the board makes. So what's new?

"I'm in the toughest spot I've ever been in my life," said Camden School Board President Kathryn Blackshear. "I prayed about this, thought about this. Because for me the state has always been here....But I knew this day was coming. Always knew this day was coming."

State Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa filed a court order Monday morning asking that the district be placed "under full state intervention." That means "takeover." It would begin in as early as six weeks. 

A court challenge, though, could be on the horizon.

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