Camden school budget proposal includes mergers and police presence

Students at four Camden schools might get access to some of the basics they do not currently have - a cafeteria, gymnasium, or auditorium - if a proposed $352.7 million school budget is approved in coming weeks.

The total budget, which is close to $500,000 less than this year's budget, includes the merging of several schools.

An addition to the proposal is a permanent police presence at city schools.

Under the proposed budget, adopted Tuesday evening by the Camden Board of Education, six or seven city police officers - at a total cost of $700,000 - would be assigned to the school district. The school board would pay the city directly for the police service.

The decision to have police officers at the schools came after the city laid off nearly half its police in January, said deputy superintendent Reuben F. Mills.

"With the shortage of police . . . we just want to make sure we're covered," Mills said.

Camden police have always responded to city schools for specific incidents, but school officials did not want to risk a delayed response.

However, some community activists and teachers such as Keith Walker, a faculty member at Yorkship Elementary School, have voiced opposition to having police officers in schools.

"The bottom line is, the schools are not a jail," Walker said. "We don't need police in our schools. What we need is a greater degree of positive parental involvement and a curriculum that advances the academic success of our children."

Most of the chatter at some schools Wednesday afternoon was on the proposed merging of several schools.

After recommendations from the state and Executive County Superintendent Peggy Nicolosi to consolidate schools with fewer than 300 students, Mills said, the administration put the plan in place in hope of having it go into effect this fall. The consolidation will not result in any layoffs, he said.

Washington Elementary School would merge with Veterans Middle School. Students at Parkside Elementary School would be transferred to either Forest Hill Elementary or Hatch Middle School. Students at Whittier Elementary School would go to either Sumner or Wiggins Elementary Schools. And Creative Arts High School would merge with Morgan Village Middle School.

"We're excited," said Creative Arts High School principal Davida L. Coe-Brockington.

Creative Arts, which opened in 1999, is housed in an old elementary school that does not have a cafeteria, a gymnasium, an auditorium, or the infrastructure for advanced technology.

The students are served their lunch in the hallway - it is brought over in warming plates from another school. They eat in the classrooms, and go to Henry Braid Wilson Elementary School to use the gym and auditorium there.

Despite the lack of resources and the school's location - near Broadway and Ferry Avenue, surrounded by a few boarded-up houses - the art school still offers a safe haven for many ambitious students in a small-classroom setting.

"The school is small, and I like the attention my daughter gets," said parent Tonya Clark. "With the merger, I'm scared something is going to get lost."

Mills said every effort would be made to keep classroom sizes small. He added that students at the schools to be merged would have access to many more resources than they do now.

Morgan Village Middle School and Creative Arts will be housed in a state-of-the-art school scheduled to be completed by the start of the next school year. The current Morgan Village site will be turned into an athletic field.

"This school will be what Camden needs," said Morgan Village principal Dawn Pittman. "Exposure to fine arts is very, very important. ... It's just going to open them up."

Also new in the budget this year is a $3.7 million appropriation for an alternative-education program that will serve 350 students, grades six through 12, with behavioral issues.

The local tax levy is expected to remain the same as last year's: $7.45 million.

The proposed budget will go to the executive county superintendent for approval. The Board of School Estimate, which consists of Mayor Dana L. Redd, two city council members, and two school board members, will hold a hearing sometime between March 22 and 29 and then vote on the budget, according to Camden's state fiscal monitor, Mike Azzara.

Changes to the budget can be made until April 8, the deadline for the budget adoption, Azzara said.


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Rita Giordano contributed to this article.