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Heidi Ramirez and the Challenge of Camden Schools
Will a State Takeover Succeed Where Mayoral Control Has Failed?

No sooner had Milwaukee School Board Director Mark Sain and I sat down to eat breakfast at a national school board convention in San Diego than we were peppered with questions from members of the Camden, N.J., school board. They were looking for a new superintendent, and Heidi Ramirez, former Chief Academic Officer for Milwaukee Public Schools, is one of the finalists.

That Ramirez would apply for the Camden position makes a lot of sense. Camden is across the river from Philadelphia where Ramirez served on the school board appointed by Governor Ed Rendell. In Philadelphia, she was director of Temple University’s Urban Education Collaborative before coming to Milwaukee.

It may not make much difference what we said because, as soon as the Camden superintendent finalists were announced, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie decided to take over the district.

Was this the failure of an elected school board? No. The present Camden school board is appointed by the mayor. Are the present school board members upset with the takeover? Not the ones we talked to. Three of the nine of the board members have publicly stated that they support the state takeover. They told us that the mayor appointed some members who rarely show up to board meetings and did little to advance the needs of the district.

So, tell me how moving up the food chain is going to improve the Camden schools?

Valerie Strauss, writing for The Washington Post, raises similar questions. Strauss points out that previous New Jersey governors have taken over other school systems: Paterson (in 1991), Newark (in 1995) and Jersey City (in 1989). None of these school systems have improved very much. Concludes Strauss, “Yet the state gets to keep on trying.”

Maybe the answer is hiring an excellent superintendent. The three finalists, who include Ramirez, came to the Camden board through the search firm of Ray and Associates, the same search firm used by the Milwaukee School Board to hire our present superintendent, Gregory Thornton.

Gary Ray told me in San Diego that Governor Christie was contracting with Ray and Associates to expand the search. The Governor actually likes the three finalists for Camden; he only wants to look at additional candidates. The question Ray could not answer (nor he should) is whether the Governor already has someone in mind to run the school system, probably a non educator, perhaps someone with a business background, which seems to be so popular with many governors.

Certainly Ramirez had to know that Governor Christie was considering taking over the Camden school district. But she had been appointed by one governor to the Philadelphia school board. Why wouldn’t another governor consider her a viable superintendent?

Strauss doesn’t think a change in governance structure will work any better in Camden than it has for other cities: “Ride the Amtrak past Camden and you’ll see something resembling the aftermath of a disaster movie with one dilapidated and abandoned neighborhood and building after another. If you want to improve education, it’s not charter schools or a few ‘vouchers’ used to transfer a handful of students to more affluent districts. It’s the soul destroying poverty that must be confronted in Jersey City, Paterson, Newark and Camden. That’s where you need to start.”

That is where we must start in Milwaukee.

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