N.J. board approves new Camden schools chief

Paymon Rouhanifard addresses a gathering Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, in Camden, N.J., after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie named him superintendent of the city's public schools. The choice of the onetime Iranian refugee with a compelling personal story to try to turn around Camden's troubled schools is latest move by a governor seeking to put his imprint on education in the state. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

The New Jersey State Board of Education on Monday approved Gov. Christie's appointee to be the next Camden schools superintendent, signaling a victory for an education reform camp pushing for nontraditional leadership of urban districts.

Paymon Rouhanifard, 32, will be the fourth outsider to lead New Jersey's most struggling school district - but unlike his three immediate predecessors, he has not risen through the ranks of traditional public schools or served as principal or assistant superintendent.

He starts on the job Thursday.

A Teach for America alum, Rouhanifard went to work on Wall Street for a few years before being hired as chief of staff for a former deputy chancellor of the New York City School District. Most recently he served as chief strategy and innovation officer for the Newark public schools.

Rouhanifard's lack of classroom experience has drawn skepticism from those who prefer the district's leader to be someone who rose through the ranks of teaching and school administration.

State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf has defended his appointment by saying the new superintendent brings new ideas and bold thinking.

Rouhanifard will earn $210,000. The state board, which confirms staff appointments made by the Commissioner, voted 8-4 to confirm him at a special meeting Monday.

Rouhanifard's salary, which exceeds the $175,000 cap set by Christie in 2010, was negotiated by Cerf. He has the authority to waive the cap for any district with more than 10,000 students. The Camden school district has 12,000 students enrolled in its 26 traditional public schools

Reuben Mills, who served as interim superintendent for a year before the state takeover in June, earned $187,200. Mills has a master's degree in education.

Bessie LeFra Young, who served as superintendent from 2007 until last year, earned $244,083 in her last year. She held a doctorate in education administration. Both Young and Mills came from the Philadelphia school district.

Young's predecessor, Annette Knox, was a regional superintendent in Cleveland and arrived in Camden with a master's degree in remedial reading.

A master's degree is a requirement to be superintendent in a New Jersey school district, except when the district, like Camden, is under full state control.

Rouhanifard, who holds a bachelor's degree in economics and political science, will receive provisional certification for superintendent while he goes through a two-year program in which he will be assigned a mentor by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. Upon completion, he will receive full certification as superintendent, according to education department spokesman Michael Yaple.

Rouhanifard will report to Cerf and not the local school board, which was downgraded to an advisory role as part of the state takeover in June.

Some experts say Christie and Cerf's choice is part of a national movement in education that has gained momentum.

Reform groups such as Teach for America, the Broad Foundation, and Knowledge is Power Program share a vision for how to improve educational performance, especially in urban schools, said Andre Perry, founding dean of the College of Urban Education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"These are achievement gap-closing organizations with a by-any-means approach," Perry said, adding that once someone - such as Rouhanifard - is in that circle, they tend to move up quickly.

Perry, who previously was CEO of a charter school network in New Orleans and holds a doctorate in education policy and leadership, wrote the book, The Garden Path: The Miseducation of the City. The book deals with post-Katrina education reforms in New Orleans, which involved many of the same reform players.

In a telephone interview following the Rouhanifard announcement last week, Cerf denied his agenda is to get nontraditional education leaders into Camden.

"What we are interested in is, how do we turn around a district that" has only 20 percent of students proficient in language arts literacy and only 30 percent proficient in math, he said.

In New York, Rouhanifard was CEO of the Office of Portfolio Management before landing in Newark about a year ago. His work in managing an enormous network of schools in New York impressed Cerf, who also had worked in that district.

But former longtime Camden School Board member Jose Delgado, who was involved in the hiring of Knox after a nationwide search, said Rouhanifard would have been eliminated in the first round.

"He would've never made the cut of a national search because he has no expertise in areas he would be responsible for as superintendent," such as negotiating with teachers unions, Delgado said Monday.