Students in Camden's public schools are without laptops, textbooks, and sometimes even paper because school funding is inadequate, said students and parents who gathered for a protest at the superintendent's office Tuesday afternoon.
"The whole system is corrupt. Public schools don't have enough," chanted nearly a dozen people from New Jersey Communities United, a grassroots group that has been fighting for more money and local control of the city school district that has been under state control since 2013. Holding signs and sleeping bags — with plans to camp overnight if necessary — the group arrived about 2:30 p.m. and demanded to speak with an administrator.
They first attempted to enter the locked administration building on Cambridge Street in Cramer Hill. A security officer would not allow them inside. A Camden County Metro Police officer arrived about 75 minutes later as the group was still chanting and waiting to hear whether the district's deputy superintendent, Katrina McCombs, would come speak with them.
The officer kept a presence, but did not prevent the group from protesting. McCombs had left to pick up her children, but the group was told she would return for an impromptu meeting. She arrived at 4:45 p.m, and met inside the building with three students and an organizer.
The meeting dragged on for several hours when the students and organizer Roger Folklorico refused to leave McCombs' office until their demand was met: a meeting with Gov. Murphy to discuss an end to the state takeover of the Camden schools.
At the request of the organizers, a pizza was sent by a police officer inside the building. The students were sending text messages to demonstrators camped outside with snacks, cases of water and soda, and sleeping bags.
District officials contacted the students' parents and asked them to persuade their children to end the protest, said district spokeswoman Maita Soukup.
Shortly after 8 p.m., the group voluntarily walked out, chanting, "students united will never be divided."
"They told my Mom I was going to be arrested," said Belmaris Garcia-Gomez, 17.
"You made your point," Folklorico told the group. "We just have to keep up the pressure."
The five students who attended the demonstration were from one of the city's magnet schools, Creative Arts High School.
"I'm here to make a change in my city, a change for the better," said sophomore Quanahz Adams, 16. "Public schools are suffering."
The group blames a lack of funding on state officials.
Dava Salas, a parent representative with New Jersey Communities United said the charter and Renaissance schools are not held to the same standards. They hire inexperienced teachers, including some who are still attending college and who lack state certification, she said.
"Money has disappeared from the school district," Salas said, referring to funding sent to charters. Her son graduated from the district last year and did not have textbooks, she said. His teachers instead copied material to give to students. Salas has two children in the district, ages 10 and 4, she said.
The district spokeswoman, Soukup, disputed some of the contentions, pointing out that traditional public schools receive $25,000 per student in state aid, while charter and Renaissance schools receive between $17,000 and $18,000 per student.
The state oversight was put in place by the administration of Gov. Chris Christie.
Gov. Murphy has not said whether or when he plans to return control back to a locally elected school board. At the time of the takeover, all but three of Camden's schools were rated among the worst in the state. Now, eight of its schools remain on that list.
The protesters placed part of the blame for the current situation on departing Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who was brought in after the 2013 takeover. Last month, Rouhanifard, who is on paternity leave, announced that he is stepping down. Under his leadership, the graduation rate jumped to 70 percent from 49 percent, and the dropout rate fell to 12 percent from 21 percent.
For years, a significant number of students transferred to charter schools and Renaissance schools. In 2000, the traditional schools educated nearly 19,000 students in more than two dozen schools. This year, there are 6,800 students enrolled in the city's 18 traditional public schools; 4,350 enrolled in 11 schools operated by charters; and 3,850 students in 11 Renaissance schools, which are run by KIPP, Mastery, and Uncommon Schools.
On Tuesday, the group hung posters on the doors to the administrative building that included sayings such as "Students over profits" and "We Want Local Control Now!"
In a statement, McCombs praised the student protesters and said the district is working toward the same goal — "a sustainable return to local control."
"Every day I work alongside teachers, community leaders, elected officials, and students to raise achievement and prepare the District for a successful return to local control," McCombs said.
"I admire the passion and advocacy these students demonstrate, and truly believe we are all that different in our hopes for this City and its schools. We want great public schools that close the achievement gap and prepare our students for success," the deputy superintendent said.
Last week, the New Jersey appellate court gave a boost to the group's position that there should be local control through an elected school board. A thee-judge panel ruled that Camden voters should be allowed to decide whether their school board should be fully elected or remain with some appointed members and only serve in an advisory capacity to the mayor.
On Tuesday, the group questioned why they were not allowed to enter the administrative building.
"Why don't they want to let us in? Is there a reason they don't want to hear what we have to say?" asked Anastasia Fabian, 50, mother of eight children. Three of her children remain in the school district; five have graduated. Her children seldom bring home textbooks and after-school programs and field trips have been cut. "My kids complain they don't have books," she said. "It's horrible."