Court hands a win to the champions of an elected Camden school board

Fourth-grade teacher Alicia Montague-Keels helps Amir Goldston (right), 10, during a class math assignment at Camden Prep Academy, the old Bonsall Elementary School, on Wednesday, September 21, 2016.

Advocates who fought to allow Camden voters to decide what kind of school board their district have won a significant victory Tuesday from a state appeals court panel.

The ruling from a three-judge panel of the Superior Court’s Appellate Division will allow Camden residents to decide whether their school board will be comprised of members elected by city voters or remain  —  as presently — a board that only serves in an advisory capacity to the mayor, who also appoints board members.

Camden mayor Frank Moran could not be reached for comment.

The panel, however, also said the board  — whatever its composition  — will continue serve in a strictly advisory role while the school district still operates under state control. The district was placed under full state oversight in 2013. In prior years, the school board was a combination of state and mayoral appointees and members elected by the voters.

Tuesday’s decision reverses a local trial court’s 2016 dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the advocates. The Appellate Division ordered the trial court to hold a hearing within 30 days to set a date for a public vote on what type of board, whether elected or appointed, the district will have.

The case to allow the public to decide the type of board attached to the Camden City School District was brought by city residents and their advocates, including the Camden County NAACP’s education committee. Their representatives could not be reached Tuesday.

Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who is stepping down at the end of this school year, has led the district for the past five years as a state appointee. Rouhanifard, who was hired by former Gov. Chris Christie, has said he supported the district’s eventual return to local control. He could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

In a written statement, Camden school district officials said they respected the court’s decision.

“Whether working alongside an elected advisory board, or one appointed by the mayor,” said the statement, “our focus remains on dramatically raising achievement for our students in Camden schools while improving the system, processes, and administrative structures that will prepare the district for a successful return to local control.”

The panel, as part of its decision, also rejected the trial judge’s opinion that the advocates waited too long to file their case.

The judges wrote that “given the important public question at issue in this case  — involving citizens’ right to vote  — it was an error not to expand the statute of limitation.”

The struggling district has 6,800 K-12 students in 18 schools. In addition, some 3,850 students attend renaissance schools run by KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon Schools, and another 4,350 students attend charter schools in the city.