Facing a $27 million budget deficit, the Camden City School District may close two schools and an annex, relocate about 900 students, and cut several hundred jobs, acting superintendent Katrina McCombs said Wednesday.

McCombs released details of a sweeping reconfiguration plan after a union leader sounded an alarm on possible closings and cuts. She cited a budget gap for the next school year and said, "The district continues to make hard fiscal choices. "

Camden Education Association president Keith Benson said union leaders were briefed on the possible closings and cuts at a meeting Monday with McCombs. As many as 300 teachers, administrators, support staff, and custodians could be laid off, he said.

“It’s such a terrible plan,” Benson said. “It’s not fair. It’s wrong.”

District spokesperson Onome Pela-Emore, however, said from 50 to 200 positions could be cut. “We are trying to save as many positions as possible,” Pela-Emore said.

McCombs said the district’s plan calls for moving students from Veterans Memorial Family School, which needs $14 million in repairs, Riletta T. Cream Elementary, and the Bonsall Annex to better-performing schools in the city.

Veterans, which has about 500 students in K-8, would be closed, Cream, with about 300 students in K-8, would be reassigned as an early childhood center. Bonsall, which enrolls about 75 preschoolers, would be closed.

McCombs said in an internal memo that other options include increasing class sizes, eliminating summer school, and making cuts in after-school, athletic, and extracurricular programs.

“Even if we close our budget gap for next year, it wouldn’t be enough to solve the long-term enrollment and facilities issues our schools face,” McCombs said in the statement. “In order to keep resources n the hands of teachers and students — we must make changes for next year.”

A spokesman for Mayor Francisco Moran said a statement would be issued this week.

Acting Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs.
TOM GRALISH
Acting Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs.

More than a half-dozen community leaders met with McCombs for about an hour Wednesday and presented her with a list including a freeze on school closures and staff cuts.

Critics say the district has focused too much on Renaissance and charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, and has ignored its traditional public schools.

“We are making a demand that this has to stop now,” activist Amir Khan said at a news conference outside district headquarters. The group, which included civil rights leaders, called for a federal review of the district’s spending and the previous sale of the city’s public schools to Renaissance and charter operators.

Khan said the schools chief told the group that some reductions are likely even if the district receives additional funding because of declining enrollment.

Michael Yaple, a state Department of Education spokesperson, said Camden’s budget has not been finalized and any decisions on cuts are pending. The district is slated to receive $284.3 million in state aid for the 2019-20 school year, a $2.3 million increase from the previous year, he said.

Camden has been operating under state control since 2013. The state took over after years of poor test scores and a graduation rate that was among the lowest in New Jersey. At the time, 10 of the city’s schools were rated among the worst public schools in the state.

Shortly after the state takeover, Gov. Chris Christie tapped Paymon Rouhanifard to head the district. Under his tenure, five of the city’s most struggling schools were turned into Renaissance schools, which are former district schools turned over to private operators.

Today, more Camden public school students are enrolled in charter and Renaissance schools than traditional public schools. Rouhanifard stepped down last June and threw his support behind McCombs to get the job permanently.

In this file photo, former Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard observes seventh-grade students at H.B. Wilson Family School. Rouhanifard stepped down in June 2018.
In this file photo, former Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard observes seventh-grade students at H.B. Wilson Family School. Rouhanifard stepped down in June 2018.

“We need to keep our public schools open,” activist Vidal Neil said at the news conference. “We don’t believe in charter schools.”

Benson, the union president, believes the latest proposed changes are an effort to move more students from the traditional public schools because they will have few options to enroll in their neighborhoods.

“We’re feeding these schools. It’s so blatantly wrong,” Benson said.

For the 2018-19 school year, the district said it expected to enroll 6,800 students in the city’s 18 traditional public schools; 4,350 in 11 charter schools, and 3,850 in 11 Renaissance schools.

In her memo, McCombs said the district plans to relocate as many employees as possible to other schools in the event of closings. Notices will be sent May 15, she said.

“While our goal is to retain as many staff as possible, we anticipate making the hard choice of reducing positions to meet budgetary constraints,” McCombs wrote. “It is possible that your position will be eliminated — not because your school is closing — but as a result of a larger reduction in force across the district.”

Benson said union officials are planning a three-day “march for equity” to Trenton next week beginning on Monday to appeal to lawmakers for additional funding for Camden. “We have to fight the best way we can.”