Thursday, September 11, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Again, Camden schools face money crisis

CAMDEN Nearly a year after Camden laid off 100 educators and eliminated another 100 school positions, the district is again facing a dire budget situation.

With a financial deficit projected in the "tens of millions," the Camden City School District froze school spending and last week warned of cuts and "hard decisions" ahead to bridge the gap in the 2014-15 budget.

"We're looking to do so in ways that won't negatively impact student learning and could actually create a district where roles are more clearly defined, work is executed more efficiently, and students, families, and educators get the service they deserve," school spokesman Brendan Lowe said.

The district, under state control for the first time this school year, has consistently struggled with shortfalls, often attributed to mismanagement, declining enrollment, and overspending. This is the fifth year in a row the district has imposed a spring spending freeze.

Per-pupil spending soared to nearly $27,000 this year - $4,000 more than the budgeted $23,000, highest in the state.

The extent of the deficit is still being determined, as are solutions, but Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard has said the district will cut non-personnel spending first and then personnel, likely starting with the central office, which grew by 50 positions in the last five years even as enrollment dropped by 1,000 students.

(The overall student-to-administrator ratio is 62 to 1, far below the state average of about 165 to 1.)

A public budget hearing will be held in the next few weeks.

The cash drain can be attributed in part to declining enrollment - the departure of 1,000 students meant $20 million to $25 million less in funding in the last five years. Some moved out of the district; others joined the growing charter school population, now at about 3,500.

District schools have 11,500 students, down from about 17,000 a decade ago.

This year, the district budgeted $65 million to transfer to charters, which enroll one in four Camden students. That's up from $37 million in 2011. A projection for charter funding in the 2014-15 school year, which will include at least one additional charter operator, was not yet available.

State aid will increase only marginally next year, from $279.5 million of the district's $372 million budget to $279.8 million, not including prekindergarten funding.

The end-of-year spending freeze, announced in February, applies to general funds that haven't already been assigned to a particular purpose. There are exceptions for field trips, transportation for athletics, and end-of-year programs.

In a memo announcing the freeze to principals and central office leaders, interim business administrator John C. Oberg put the writing on the wall. "Our unsustainable financial situation will force us to make hard decisions," he wrote.

Pledging to right-size central administration, Rouhanifard also hired six people in the fall for his transition team who make between $92,000 and $160,000, on par with the median salary for administrators and supervisors statewide ($148,719 in 2012-13). Two of the hires filled vacancies, two were state employees, and two came into newly created positions, the district said.

The superintendent "is filling out his team, as could be expected, and bringing in the best people possible to help lead this work," Lowe said in an e-mail. "Overall, the central office will not be growing."

The district has also hired a cadre of 16 full-time and 14 part-time teacher evaluator/trainers to provide more support and coaching to school leaders and ensure compliance with new state evaluation regulations.

More stringent guidelines for evaluations and tenure call for at least three observations a year, among other criteria. Camden largely failed last year when, according to preliminary data provided by the district, only 770 educators out of 1,200 were evaluated.

This year, evaluators observed 100 percent of educators, most two to three times each, and continue to provide training, Rouhanifard said.

Some districts appoint special school evaluators, though the state does not require it.

At least seven newly appointed full-time evaluators are paid between $100,000 and $121,000 annually, according to records, though their salaries are covered by federal grant money.

The trainers will aim to fill some of the void left in April, when nearly 100 supervisor positions were eliminated, including in of science, math, fine arts, social studies, language arts, technology, and special education.

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso


Julia Terruso Inquirer Staff Writer
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