CAMDEN, N.J. – An EAGnews investigation into Camden City Public Schools’ spending practices reveals the low-performing district is “investing” hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on items that have no discernible benefit to student learning.
While mindless spending is a common problem in the K-12 world, Camden school officials manage to take the practice to rarified heights, simply because the district’s enormous budget allows them to.
Camden City schools spent $306,457,458 taxpayer dollars during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which state figures are available. That works out to roughly $24,000 per student, well-above the New Jersey average of $18,000, reports Trentonian.com.
That allowed the district to drop a lot of money – $987,564 on legal fees, $394,818 on professional conferences and workshops, $708,817 on various consultants, $86,939 on restaurants and catering and $160,666 on drug and alcohol treatment – with little to show for it in the way of student achievement.
That’s obvious, judging from the district’s embarrassing graduation rate (49 percent) and test scores. NJ.com reports that only one in five Camden students rate as “proficient” (or competent) on the state’s math and English tests.
The lack of learning has soured relations between students and their teachers. A recent state-sponsored survey found half of Camden’s educators don’t believe students can be “motivated to do the necessary work,” while half of students don’t believe the district is “preparing them well for college and careers,” reports NJSpotlight.com.
That level of mistrust and dysfunction no doubt contributed to state officials’ decision this past summer to seize control of the troubled district. Perhaps appointed state leaders will be able to produce better results than the local school board could.
Until that happens, taxpayers in New Jersey might be interested to know how a district awash in state and federal cash could be so ineffective.
EAGnews attempted to answer that question by conducting a review of Camden City schools’ check registry from the 2012-13 school year. What we found was a district filled with well-paid (and well-fed) adult employees, who spend money like they’re auditioning for jobs with the federal government.
Our review prompted a separate news report by Fox 29, a New Jersey television station.
During the 2012-13 school year, the district of 13,000 students had 11 administrators who earned six-figure salaries.
Despite Camden schools’ abundance of highly trained, degree-carrying education professionals, officials still felt the need to hire a slew of outside experts and trainers to provide teachers and staff members with workshops and professional development conferences. The district had 106 such expenditures during the previous school year, totaling $394,818.
For example, the district spent $15,000 with The Peters Group, which delivers motivational talks to educators and trains them in the ways of effective school cultures.
That sounds like a nice service, but taxpayers might wonder why professional, degreed educators require an expensive refresher course, and if they did, why Camden’s well-paid and well-trained administrators couldn’t have conducted a similar conference for teachers. Using “in house” educational experts would have saved a nice chunk of money.
Taxpayers might also wonder why the district spent $5,998 with Edvation – a company that helps educators integrate technology and 21st century skills into the curriculum – when the district already has an information technology specialist on staff who earned $105,011 last year. Couldn’t Camden schools’ IT expert have trained teachers on incorporating technology into the classroom for no additional expense?
Some training sessions made sense, at least on paper. Camden schools have a large population of English-language learners, which explains why the district spent $100,300 with the National Council of Teachers of English, and $34,904 with the Children’s Literacy Initiative last year.
However, considering Camden’s painfully low reading and writing test scores, it’s certainly fair to ask if all the expensive training is yielding any fruit for students – or if it’s just enriching another group of self-styled K-12 experts and consultants.
Speaking of consultants ….
Camden schools spent a staggering $708,817 with 26 different consultants and consulting firms during the previous school year.
Seventy-four percent of that total – $525,000 – was spent with UPD Consulting, a Baltimore-based group that “specializes in implementing reforms in education that improve results.” Considering Camden’s failures resulted in a state takeover, perhaps school officials should ask UPD leaders if they offer a money-back guarantee.
Other consultants that scored big pay days with Camden schools include The Danielson Group ($27,650), Public Consulting Group ($20,811), Go Teach Consultants, LLC ($15,000), and E-Rate Exchange ($21,900).
The district also paid $6,666 to Ewuare X. Osayande, a political activist, author, cultural analyst, poet, and internet radio talk show host. We don’t know what advice Osayande gave Camden teachers and administrators, though his website contains information about “white privilege,” a radical left-wing concept that capitalism unfairly favors white people over minorities.
If that’s indicative of the message Osayande peddled to Camden schools, we can safely say his advice had no effect in helping students become college and career ready.
Lawyers in love … with Camden schools
A hefty slice of Camden’s spending went to attorneys in 2012-13. The district spent $987,564 on legal expenses last school year.
Trenton schools, a district of similar size, spent about $500,000 less in legal fees.
Fox 29 reporter Jeff Cole asked school officials how much of the district’s legal tab – if any – was spent trying to remove inept or immoral teachers from the classroom. Camden officials refused to answer that particular question.
We’re also curious about how much of this money was spent on attorneys who assisted in negotiations with various school employee labor unions.
While EAGnews can’t report why Camden “lawyered up” so heavily in 2012-13 – because the district refused to provide details – we can report which attorneys benefitted from it. Of the district’s 33 legal charges, eight of them were with Brown & Connery, LLP. Those charges totaled $441,937, nearly 45 percent of Camden schools’ overall legal spending.
The district also had eight charges with the Florio Perrucci Steinhardt & Fader law firm (totaling $423,218) and 12 with the Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin law firm (totaling $102,656).
New Jersey residents reportedly have the highest property taxes in the country. While they can’t be happy about that, perhaps taxpayers can find comfort in knowing their money is supporting some of the finest attorneys in The Garden State.
When the kids are away, the adults will eat a catered lunch?
The adults in charge of Camden City schools seem to know all about the city’s culinary delights. The district spent $86,939 on restaurants and catering services during the 2012-13 school year. While students may have benefitted from some of that spending, it’s likely a hefty portion of the district’s catering and restaurant tab went to feed the adults during one of the district’s many employee training sessions.
District officials’ top three favorite caterers, based on total expenditures, are Corinne Bradley-Powers ($24,735), Old San Juan Restaurant ($24,240) and Aunt Berta’s Kitchen ($10,837).
Camden officials also like spending money to join professional organizations and attend their conferences, though the academic benefit to students is highly questionable.
District officials paid membership or participation fees to a number of groups last year: $21,705 to the National School Boards Association; $1,350 to the New Jersey School Boards Association; $26,679 to the Foundation for Educational Administration Inc.; $1,155 to the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents; $870 to the New Jersey Association of Federal Program Administrators; $2,100 to the National Association for the Education of Young Children; $1,510 to the National Association of Social Workers – New Jersey Chapter; and $800 to the National Association for Bilingual Education.
Camden schools also spent $1,154 so officials could attend the spring conference of the New Jersey Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages/New Jersey Bilingual Educators.
Another $2,440 was spent so school officials could attend the New Jersey Black Issues Convention.
Camden officials also spent $26,524 in conference-related expenses with the Grand Versailles at Quality Inn, “a grand banquet hall for all occasions.” Since the hall is only 20 minutes away in Maple Shade, New Jersey, taxpayers might wonder why officials couldn’t have found a large meeting place at one of the district’s many facilities and saved a pile of money.
It’s important to keep in mind that despite all of these professional powwows, Camden students still had some of the lowest achievement ratings in the entire state.
Odds and ends
Despite the dismal proficiency rates in math, reading and writing, Camden students apparently got out of the classroom a good bit during the 2012-13 school year.
Camden students enjoyed jaunts to various performing arts theaters ($57,587); professional sporting events ($10,112); amusement parks ($20,427); movies theaters, bowling alleys and arcades ($23,759); the Medieval Times dinner theater ($13,668); museums, zoos and aquariums ($120,174).
School officials told the Board of Education that the bowling outings improved student’s “hand eye coordination.” They get plenty of that type of practice at home playing video games, and it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.
They told the board that roller skating outings helped students “expand muscle coordination, balance and rhythm.” Isn’t that what gym class is for? Finally, they told the board that trips to amusement parks are meant to improve student’s “math and physics skills.” Gee, we thought that’s what math and physics classes were for.
The district spent $51,448 with Verizon Wireless on cell phones – an expense that public schools managed to do without for much of their existence. The cell phones charges averaged $4,287 a month.
On a more serious note, the district spent $160,666 on drug and alcohol treatment. District officials wouldn’t reveal to Fox 29’s Cole if those expenses were for adult employees, students, or both.
Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report