“For the Camden Teachers’ Union, It’s Politics as Usual”: A Response to an Attack on Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard

I’ve written about  Keith Benson before, president of the Camden Education Association and and paranoid conspiracy theorist who claims that the terrorist attack on 9/11 was a massive government plot and that that public school reform is a conspiracy among money-grubbing reformers and “oppressed natives” who are afflicted with a “psychosis” that leads them“to improve their own subjugated standing by attempting to join the ranks of those who do the oppressing.” (See here and here.)

Crazytown, right? Yet I feel compelled to respond to Benson’s most recent attack on Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. Benson is entitled to his own opinion but he’s not entitled to his own facts, especially regarding a city that has suffered for decades from educational mismanagement until the arrival of Rouhanifard.

Here’s what the CEA president claims in his Courier-Post editorial:

  • Rouhanifard is “uniquely underqualified” for the superintendency of what was N.J.’s most dysfunctional school district.
  • Rouhanifard has “zero accountability” and that Camden residents and students “have no voice” in choices of leadership or education.
  • Rouhanifard is “breaking state education law.”
  • Rouhanifard isn’t properly planning for increased enrollment from “students arriving from Puerto Rico” and students “re-enrolling from renaissance charter schools.”
  • The district is understaffed and Rouhanifard isn’t filling positions.
  • Rouhanifard is withholding QSAC scores (the state’s accountability metric for districts).
  • Rouhanifard is withholding “evaluations on his job performance that are codified in his contract.”

I’ll address these claims but first let’s note that nowhere in this screed is any mention of Camden Public Schools’ long sordid history and its deleterious impact on Camden students.  Angel Cordero, longtime Camden advocate, notes in a response to Benson that before Rouhanifard’s arrival Camden endured sixteen superintendents in twenty years,  that twenty-three out of the district’s twenty-six schools were in the bottom five percent among all N.J. schools, and fifty percent of students never graduated from high school.  As recently as five years ago, Cordero notes, one million dollars “disappeared” under Board-appointed  superintendent Annette Knox, students at Camden High were bullied for speaking Spanish, and “the best hope for families was being selected for a magnet school or attending a charter or Catholic school.”

And now? Thousands of Camden students benefit from systemic improvements under Rouhanifard’s stewardship, which began with  his state appointment in 2013. They attend school in new or renovated buildings. Their growth and proficiency in math and reading is improving dramatically: twenty-one percent more students are graduating high school than in 2012.  Suspensions are down district-wide by fifty-three percent and at high schools by eighty-nine percent.

But Benson never mentions the impact of the new Administration on the students because he’s entirely focused on the impact of the new Administration on teachers who belong to the union. Let’s look at those claims.

Yes, Rouhanifard is young, only 32 when he was first appointed. But age isn’t a proxy for managerial excellence. After all, Camden’s former superintendent, Bessie LeFra Young, was 57 when she was hired by the School Board. She left in disgrace after being absent 186 days in the previous 18 months and after news emerged that she falsified QSAC documents and a Violence and Vandalism report. (For more, see here.) Claim debunked.

Benson bemoans the lack of democratic accountability, but on Nov 7th Camden residents elected a new mayor (Frank Moran) and City Council members by a margin of  nearly ninety percent and all of them ran on a platform that fully supports the Superintendent and the City’s education reform agenda. Sounds like accountability to me. Claim debunked.

Benson says the district is improperly planning for increased enrollment. Yet every year, especially in districts with high student mobility, after October 15th there’s movement from one school to another. The Camden Enrollment system is able to track student migration. There is no flood of students, from Puerto Rico or elsewhere entering the district For those that do, the district typically offers support and guidance for school registration. Claim debunked.

Rouhanifard is withholding QSAC scores? I actually checked with the district and QSAC results, as required under law, will be released tonight at the November School Board meeting, which will take place at Davis Elementary School. Claim debunked.

Is the district failing to fill staff positions? Actually, vacancies are at a four-year low, even in hard-to-fill positions like special education and STEM. Claim debunked.

Is Superintendent Rouhanifard withholding his self-evaluation? I was on a school board for twelve years and know (as Benson must know as well — scary if he doesn’t) that evaluations are personnel matters and therefore not released publicly. How would he feel if his members’ evaluations (or his own) were released at Board meetings? For the record, Rouhanifard’s  initial three-year contract was renewed for three years this past Spring. Claim debunked.

Maybe Cordero is right and Benson has too much time on his hands, with not teaching and all. Maybe he’s letting his paranoia get the better of his logic. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s not listening to students in Camden and parents like Jennifer Perez, who wrote a rebuttal to Benson’s editorial in the Courier-Post. Ms. Perez writes,

Camden’s teachers’ union president wants to make our schools part of some big political debate. But for parents like me, the positive changes the superintendent has made to Camden’s public schools are about one thing: giving our children the chance at a better life than we had.

 

I don’t recognize the superintendent the union president describes is his commentary. For the first time in my life, Camden has a superintendent who actually listens to parents, and cares what we have to say. Paymon Rouhanifard came to my house last year and listened patiently as families from my block talked about their kids’ schools. After he left, he took action on the issues we raised.

 

Four years ago, I never would have sent my oldest son to one of Camden’s comprehensive high schools. But as a freshman at Woodrow Wilson this year, my son is getting good grades, making friends, and thinking about joining sports teams and after-school clubs. Thanks to the school’s new bilingual principal and dean of climate and culture, Wilson is safe and calm. Students focus on learning and suspensions are down by almost 90 percent.

 

I know this progress could not have been easy, but I’m grateful to the teachers, parents and community members, and to the superintendent for working with the community to make our schools better.

 

For the teachers’ union, it might be politics as usual in Camden. But for parents like me, supporting our superintendent isn’t about politics. It’s about giving our kids a brighter future.

Mr. Benson, Camden’s turnaround isn’t about Chris Christie’s foibles, with which you began your editorial. It isn’t about union politics. It isn’t about you. It’s about one constituency: the children and families of Camden City. And according to Ms. Perez they’re better off under the leadership of Paymon Rouhanifard. Case closed..

What do you think?

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