Camden activist pushing for school-board elections

Sean Brown talks at a meeting of the Camden Leadership Alliance about his petition drive to shift the city’s school board from an appointed to an elected body. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)

Sean Brown, a former Camden school board member and a longtime critic of the district's leadership, this week began a grassroots campaign aimed at making the board an elected body, rather than a panel appointed by the mayor.

Mayor Dana L. Redd has had the power to appoint all members of the board since 2010, when the state takeover of the city ended and Camden became a Type 1 school district dependent on its municipal government. Before that, the board was made up of a combination of members appointed by the governor and the mayor, as well as several who were elected.

After the state took over the district in 2013, the board became an advisory body with no formal governing power.

"School governance and policy should represent the community," said Brown, 32. "Instead, what we have is a governor-appointed superintendent who works with a mayor-appointed board . . . and a situation that leaves parents without a way of voting for their own interests."

Brown has started approaching Camden residents about signing a petition to support his measure. He hopes to collect enough signatures to get it onto the ballot as a question for voters in November's general election. Although it is unclear what will happen if it passes, the earliest a board election could be held would be next year.

Brown said he had no intention of running. "Personally, I will never be on the Camden school board again," he said.

Brown, who founded the city's Young Urban Leaders organization and is completing a master's degree program in public policy at Rutgers-Camden, has support from some in the community.

The state takeover has riled parents who fear that the goal of Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, an appointee of Gov. Christie, is to close the city's traditional public schools in favor of a broader network of charter and charter-public hybrid "Renaissance" schools.

Last month, the district announced that five schools would convert to Renaissance models, meaning they would be run by nonprofit operators in new or renovated buildings and would accept all children from those neighborhoods.

A number of parents have lauded the changes, but others have voiced anger that the decisions were made without votes from community members.

The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers' union, has contended that Rouhanifard's proposal violates the laws governing such schools, though the district has denied that.

In recent months at board meetings, Brown has raised the idea of an elected board and has asked board members to consider voting on it themselves.

District officials have said they believe the state takeover makes Brown's challenge moot.

"At the same time, we deeply value residents' input and are working with the community, and incorporating their feedback at every turn," said district spokesman Brendan Lowe. "We look forward to continuing to improve the quality of the education our students receive and a return to local control."

Brown thinks that the 2010 amendment to the state-takeover legislation regarding Camden gave Redd the authority to appoint members for only four years. He argues that other state-controlled districts in New Jersey, such as Newark and Paterson, have elected advisory school boards.

Brown said he also suspects that city leaders, not Rouhanifard, are the biggest opponents of his proposal.

He was one of the first people Redd appointed to the board in 2010 - an experience Brown said he cherished. But he became an outspoken critic of Redd and district officials, and was not reappointed after his 2013 term. He said then he did not want to serve on a board with a purely advisory role.

Brown acknowledged that past boards could not solve the pervasive problems in the city's schools, some of which go back decades. But, he said, elected board members could still better advocate for Camden's residents, even without voting power.

"I can't legitimately argue that an elected nonvoting board will make the lives of 12,000 kids better," he said. "But I can argue that it allows the public to have a greater voice."


asteele@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @AESteele