Faced with a $75 million shortfall, the Camden City School District announced plans to eliminate 575 positions, resulting in as many as 400 layoffs, based on a budget introduced Wednesday night.
Officials blame declining enrollment, overspending, and cuts in federal funding for the shortfall, one of the largest in recent history. The budget preserves $16 million in new spending on Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard's plan for the district.
To close the gap, the district will cut $29 million in nonpersonnel costs, use an $18 million balance projected as available at the end of this year, and cut $28 million through the layoffs.
The $359 million budget with a $7 million tax levy must be voted on by Tuesday. In the state-run district, only Rouhanifard needs to approve the plan, which is $33 million smaller than last year's. State aid remained flat at $279.5 million.
On Wednesday night, Rouhanifard and interim business administrator John C. Oberg outlined the 2014-15 budget for about a dozen residents and the advisory school board.
"These are the most difficult decisions a superintendent, a school district board, a community can be a part of," Rouhanifard said. "That's not to say we all agree on them, but these are the necessary and, unfortunately, critical decisions we do have to make to rightsize our budget and to ensure we have a system of excellent schools. And I'm hopeful today is a step in that direction."
In the last five years, district enrollment has dropped by 1,000 students while spending has gone up more than 10 percent. Camden is funded at $23,000 per pupil, but the city spent $27,400 this year, making it second only to Asbury Park in per-pupil funding in the state.
Roughly 70 percent of district expenditures go toward personnel.
Of the 575 positions slated for elimination, some are vacant or will be by the end of the year, Rouhanifard said, leaving up to 400 people who could be laid off.
Of the 400, 200 to 250 will be teachers; the remainder will come from central administration. The personnel cuts amount to a 32 percent reduction in central office staffing and a 20 percent reduction in school staffing.
Robert Farmer, acting president of the Camden Education Association, the district's teachers' union, said continuing negotiations brought the layoff number down from close to 900.
"We're looking at ways to work with the state. It's tight, but we're not going to stop until we can get the number as low as possible," Farmer said.
"We have some of the lowest staffing ratios in the state and in the country," Rouhanifard said. "Given the financial reality, having overspent over the last few years, those ratios are unsustainable."
Camden employs one person for every four students and one teacher for every nine students.
Further budget stress comes from the increasing cost of charter schools, which get funding from the district.
In Camden, one in four students attends a charter school, and the district transferred $55 million in funds to educate those children this school year. Next year, Camden has budgeted for $72 million to transfer to charters.
The transfer fund accounts for KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, the state's first Renaissance school, a public-private hybrid, which plans to open in the fall in Lanning Square with 100 students. The budget also sets aside funds for two additional Renaissance schools, Uncommon Schools and Mastery Schools, both approved by the district, but not yet by the state.
Despite the financial situation, Rouhanifard will move forward with plans to fund more teacher training, improve security, partner with Renaissance schools, and maintain a newly hired transition team.
The cuts will not affect special education or after-school programming and will not dip into schools' non-personnel costs such as textbooks and classroom materials.
No schools will close or be turned over to charter operators in the 2014-15 school year, Rouhanifard said. However, underperforming and low-attended schools could be phased out, he said, meaning they would not take additional students beginning next school year, but would allow the current population to continue through to graduation.
Last year, the city announced it would lay off 200 employees, including 96 teachers, but nearly all of those people were rehired after attrition, district officials said.
The advisory school board had few questions. Member Barbara Coscarella recommended that the district look into selling the nine-story administration building on Cooper Street to save money, and President Kathryn Blackshear said she wanted Rouhanifard to keep his promise that funding would not be cut from security or custodial support.
Larry Zahn, a member of the Camden Education Association, said some fault lay with the state.
"We've had a state monitor sitting on that board for years," said Zahn, a special-education teacher. "So let's be honest about this: Where does the real problem lie? Does it lie with past management, or does it lie on the state looking the other way?"
Rouhanifard responded by saying the state monitor, who left the district this week, is not solely to blame.
"We're not pointing the finger," Rouhanifard said. "It isn't any one person's fault."
Noting the number of people Rouhanifard has hired to his transition team, many at six-figure salaries, resident Joyce Carter asked what central office position would be eliminated.
"Who's going to go? Is some of the staff that came in with you going to leave?" she asked.
"I'll be frank," Rouhanifard said. "I came in here and built a team, and I need that team to help us implement our vision, a vision that was created alongside our community. We have not taken off the table furloughs for my team, potential reductions in salary, but the team that I developed is one we need to execute a strategy."