Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Beginning of Progress in Camden Schools


As posted on Facebook

Tuesday, Camden City School District Superintendent Paymon RouhanifardPaymon Rouhanifard announced the basic parts on a new gifted and talented program for next school year.
The program will be in two schools, for grades third to fifth. 
Students will focus on certain subject areas (like math or language arts) with a different teacher teaching subjects at an advanced level in a different room.
Only students already in that school will qualify to test for the new program.
They still need to figure out which schools, how a student is chosen, and who gets to teach it.
They need a name for it.
They got to find the money to pay for it.
This has taken a long time. I hope to see the program get a name, find money, start in September 2018, recruit about 30 students from each school, provide an stimulating learning experience, and brings new students to the school with the Camden Enrollment process.
This too way too long. For me, the story starts in 1989 when I was in the CHIPS program. It was an excellent programs that now hundreds of people from Camden in their late 20s and 30s had. Ms. Doyle was my teacher in third grade at McGraw, my last year in Camden before moving. Dr. Stephenson, my principal later became the Willingboro superintendent.
Paymon's announcements is a reminder to the pragmatist that this may be what progress looks like. Slow. Too slow. But it can be. Sometimes in comes from protest or lawsuits. Sometimes it comes for leadership and advocacy. And on too many issues, it doesn't come at all. I began asking and pushing a gifted and talented program in 2010, my first year on the school board. It may be nine years from then before its fully implemented.
They reached out to people in the community. The pictures are screenshots of some of the information shared and discussed. Katrina McCombs and Christie Whitzell worked on this for months. They went to conferences and partnered with a university. Board member Theresa Atwood, former educator spoke about the issue Felisha Reyes'Morton reminded me to be strategic. Brother Keith Eric Benson and Sister Ronsha Dickerson talked about the issue with education groups they lead. Anthony Ways and Rashaan Hornsbyare two kings that reliably give me wise counsel.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

My Lessons from the Camden 2017 Primary Election

Part 1 of 3: Election 2017
Note: I wrote this in late June 2017 but didn't publish it. The general election in in a few weeks, so here it is.

Background: I was a part of the team that helped with Ray Lamboy, Tracey Hall Cooper, Namibia El, and Quinzelle Bethea run for mayor and city council in 2017. This is a short list that discusses why the team lost, in my personal perspective. I hope that these lessons help us improve our community. [Note:If you want more details, Rutgers professor and Camden resident Stephen Danley and his team wrote about the election here.]
Candidate for council Quinzelle Bethea stands with campaign volunteers on the left as dozens of Moran supporters, including many city hall employees stand across the street.
Money: I could really make this a one paragraph article. To win against the establishment takes over $50,000. Moran’s team spent more on election day then Ray spent in the entire election. They were not raising money because of huge support coming in the form of thousands of $20 donations. They raised $5 million in one night a few weeks before the election. We could not compete with that.

Below you see that Councilman Jenkins, a person that most people have never heard of, has little to show for his almost eight years on council, raised $23,000 without even trying. Money just went from one pot to another. It's the way the system works. Or at least works for the political establishment.

Until a team has real large sums of money to raise, the policy fight has to happen in other ways besides elections. Most wealthy people in this area will not donate the legally capped $2,700 in an election unless they are 90% sure the person will win.

We heard from many people that did not want to donate over $299 so their donation would stay undisclosed.

Time: It took Ray many conversations and commitments to decide to run. He made his final decision just a few weeks before the petitions were due in early April. Some people were reluctant to support someone that they were not sure was ready to run. This delayed fundraising and team building.

No machine infrastructure - “The Machine” is used to describe what is a combination of George Norcross, his brothers Congressman Donald and lawyer Phil [their other brother is a psychologist], the county Democratic party staff and others throughout New Jersey all working together to keep current and their selected Democrats in power. The Machine, or more accurately labeled - the Camden County Democratic Party has paid full time staff. They have committee people that are tasked with working to help their team win.

Candidates Lamboy, Bethea, El, and Hall Cooper did not know each other well, did not have huge amounts of cash raised or todonate to the campaign themselves, and did not have paid staff that lasted throughout the campaign. There was no campaign manager. I helped as much as I could, but I also worked a full time job throughout the campaign.

The team relied heavily on volunteers to knock on doors and hang signs.
Voter education for low information voters - The most telling moment of why and how we lost happened on election day. City Council candidate Qunizelle Bethea and I were in East Camden. First, I parked on Westfiled Ave., to walk to Davis to check things out at the polls their. Across the street, I saw over a hundred people at a rally for Moran and his team. Quinzelle talked to a few that said they were there to get paid. People were lined up to go door to door and then get their $100 check. They didn't know who Moran, Lamboy, or Spencer were. They didn't watch debates or read Q & As in newspapers. They didn't know that Holtec wasn't paying taxes or that candidate Fuentes was also in charge of the county's vote by mail system. They just wanted or needed money. It was an easy one day check in America's poorest city.
As the day continued, we knocked on the door of a household that we already knew had registered voters. A young lady opens the door. “Cousin!” she yells in excitement of recognizing the young man behind the bowtie. By the time the conversation ended, I heard her say she didn’t know he was running, she didn’t know what a sample ballot was nor ever saw it, and as she put it - “I can’t vote for you because I’m only registered to vote for president”.

When I heard it I screamed inside my head. This young lady represents so many people in our community. She cares about issues, she watches the news, she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Obama in 2012. Outside of that, she thinks the mayor is Dana Reed and unintentionally ignores local politics, unaware of its vast impact.

Vote by mail - We did not have an effective strategy to go door to door with seniors, disabled, college students, or others that prefer or exclusively vote by mail. The main reason was that we didn’t trust the process. The other reason was that with less than $30,000 raised, it wasn’t a priority. Over 700 people voted that way.

Corrupted legal process - The control of elections in New Jersey is split between different departments so that no one person or committee has too much power. The law supports and allows unethical practices.

The assumption of winning - Political insiders argue if Milton Milan and Gwendolyn Faison were supported by the Democratic party officially or unofficially in 1997, 2001, and 2005 [2005 is when the party endorsed and supported then Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz Perez].

I thought Ray was the best person to use the power of the fourth floor of city hall to implement that change.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Camden Injustice: An Incomplete List and Suggested Action

Where is there injustice in our community? And what can we do about it.
 Police Brutality
There are young men and woman in Camden that have been punched, kicked, arrested, and jailed without ever committing a crime. I have read the reports, seen the pictures, and heard the stories. Please read this article that discusses the issue in detail. See this story as well.
I trust Chief J. Scott Thomson. I know that he has fired more police officers than any other chief in New Jersey. Almost all cops are awesome. They have a tough job. I’m friends with cops. But it says a lot about the state of policing that after a complete overhaul of the police department, after trainings and a presidential candidate touting the grand success months after a presidential visit, we still have young men getting the shit kicked out of them that were never resisting arrest or a threat of any kind.

Last year, a high profile political insider told me that he thought that the accusations were by criminals that wanted to bolster their chance of getting a case kicked out. No. Just as it happened in 1966, 1976, 1986, and 2006, there are some officers that are overly aggressive. [Read Camden After the Fall for many examples.]
What can we do about it?
A.      Write, call, complain, and meet with/to Camden County Freeholders. Remind them that this is still an issue.
B.      Record it, put it on Facebook, talk about it, let the world know the names of the cops that do it.
C.      Start a Camden Civilian Complaint Review Board. Model it after what Mayor Ras Baraka and the ACLU did in Newark, NJ. We already have structure in place, but it needs the support of Mayor Dana Redd, the county government, and the community. The local NAACP could work with community groups, especially the District Council Collaborative Boards.

2Under resourced schools
The argument about district schools versus charter and renaissance schools misses the point. Students need material items and comfortable schools to learn and be prepared for the 21st century economy. For example, at all five district high schools and the three charter high schools in Camden, Biology students need microscopes, slides, preserved animals to dissect, and certified highly qualified teachers. Do all eight schools have that today? No. What happens when that student goes off to college, sitting with peers that were exposed to science with the right materials in middle in high schools?
What can we do?
A.      Understand the school budget process. There is a lot to it. A lot. Remember that unlike 98% of the school districts in New Jersey, we have neither a voting school board nor a public election on the school budget.
B.      Demand that charter and renaissance school budgets be published online, just as public schools are required to do.
C.      Parents can be specific about what their students need in the classroom.
D.      District leaders can be open about the curriculum and resources needed to implement it.
E.       The next Advisory Board meeting is Tuesday, January 26 at Davis Family School in East Camden.

3 Elections
Does anyone think that elections in Camden reflect true democracy? No.
Do I need to say anything else about this? Not really.
What can we do?
·         Vote
·         Do more than just vote. Go to meetings. Listen to different sides. Remember that elected leaders aren’t kings or queens, they are servants.

4 Sex slavery & Human Trafficking
We have sex slaves in Camden. Many of the sex workers [technical term for prostitutes] that we see roam Broadway are forced by circumstances beyond their control to be there.
What can we do?
I think the other thing that we can do is end rape culture, the idea that men forcing women into sex is sometimes okay. Read this article, that lists what we can do to end it.

To report knowledge of trafficking, here is local information. 

Arrests and Jail
In America, and certainly in Camden, the criminal justice systems arrests too many people for too many infractions, and then sends them to overcrowded prisons. People are then released to a community with not enough jobs, not enough affordable places to live, and streets with a thriving suburban resident drug market fueled by the over prescribing of opiates for pain relief.


Our jail here in Camden County is too crowded. To their credit, Camden County Freeholders put out a document that discusses the issues and possible solutions. But that isn’t good enough. This has been a problem for over ten years. There are multiple reports and recommendation on what to do about it. The eighth amendment to the United States Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment.
What can we do:
1.       Collect stories about mistaken identity arrests, disgusting almost inedible foods being eaten in the jail, and other deplorable conditions. 
2.       Write, call, complain, and meet with/to Camden County Freeholders. Remind them that this is still an issue.


In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that

This Injustice List is not complete. Please add what you think are other injustices that happen. But like Rev. Dr. King, we must offer suggestions for how to change policies and then identify our specific actions to get the powerful to change. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Camden Election 2015

Election 2015

These are my thoughts and some information on the election this year. Most of my comments are limited to the candidates for Camden City Council, but I also mention things for the state election. This year, we are voting for city council wards, freeholders, state assembly, and state senate.

Disclaimer: These are my personal thoughts. This blog does not reflect the opinion of my job or any organization that I am a part of. I have not discussed the contents of this with anyone before publishing.

Here are some videos from the debate. The quality isn’t great, but you’ll get the point. There are some interesting exchanges. Thank you Pastor Levi Combs for hosting it at First Refuge Baptist Church in Parkside.

Reflections, thoughts, and other things...

  1. What does progress look like? What is development?

The elected officials and their supporters and the opposition candidates have a huge difference of opinion of what progress is. This came out clearly during the debate. There are certainly newly built homes, but there are also many abandoned houses that still crumble their neighborhoods. There are home buyer programs, but Camden also has a steadily decreasing population, as people move to Pennsauken, Palmyra, Sicklerville, and other suburban towns.

In these discussions, Councilman Brian Coleman of the 2nd ward discussed grant programs and other city initiatives. He stressed that the unions and contractors are doing all they can to hire Camden residents. His opponents, Cornell Garnett and Namibia Burke strongly disagree. Garnett did a good job during the debate of showing that his in not with “the machine” or with the new opposition coalition that includes Amir Khan and Roy Jones. He took the audience through the history of false promises. Namibia Burke did a good job of showing that she is literally a fighter (with UCC), former educator, and highly educated. Although in a different ward, Moneke Ragsdale came across as calm and informed. I admit that I am confused why eminent domain was made an issue in this campaign. The city made a mistake in sending out one letter to residents. They then said nevermind. There will not be any homes bought through eminent domain in Whitman Park and the city doesn’t have a developer or grant to pay for it even if they wanted to. This is one of many examples of how truth, facts, and basic communication are replaced with silence, myths, or exaggerations on every side of the ballot.

[I could not find campaign materials for Burley, Moran, or Lopez]

  1. The current people elected don’t come out to the voters

As many of the candidates for City Council discussed gentrification, taxes, housing, and metro police on Thursday, the mayor and three of the four city council candidates played bingo with senior citizens at Riverview towers. This may be honorable and fun for the seniors, but it is not appropriate in a democracy. I like some of the things that Dana Redd has done as mayor, but I think that she and the City Council members that are proud to announce their accomplishments at press conferences and at events to developers, lawyers, and CEOs, should also be willing to defend those accomplishments to the voters.

The crowd was hostile to the establishment. But as you’ll see in #4, there are many myths that float around and unreasonable ideas that deserve scrutiny or explanation.

  1. The current registered voters don’t come out

I don’t want to seem cynical, but maybe the Democratic establishment doesn’t come out to debates or events that they themselves have not organized because low turnout benefits the incumbent. In June 2015, Brian Coleman got 400 votes to qualify to run as a Democrat in the upcoming election - and he had more votes than the other three counterparts. Less than 1,500 people have basically picked who will run the city. Over 70,000 people live in Camden.
City Council Candidate
Votes in June 2015 Primary
Dana Burley, Ward 1
Brian Coleman, Ward 2
Francisco “Frank” Moran, Ward 3
Luis Lopez. Ward 4

The picture below is from the election report from 2014, the same year Cory Bokker ran for and won his full term in the US Sentate. Even years usually have a higher turnout than odd years in New Jersey. The numbers on the far right are percentage of turnout. That is to say how many people voted compared to how many are registered to vote.

In Camden, a city where city hall has taken responsibility for hiring people, changing the police department, partnering with school choice, bringing in companies with over $1B of tax breaks only 1 out of 5 people actually vote. Even so, this is the American system - this is democracy, this is a republic.

I have talked to over 30 people in the last week, conducting an unofficial survey. Are you voting next week? Almost no one said yes. One person knew that Arthur Barclay is running for something. I told him he's running for state assembly. He'll be a lawmaker if he wins. Barclay was the highest vote getter in 2013 for Camden. He pulls in more voters than anyone. The county needs Barclay to not only win, but to get more voters to show up on election day so that the Democrat freeholders too are able to win election. This year, there are four running instead of the usual three. That means that if the republicans won all four freeholder seats, they would take the majority for the first time since the early 1990s. To his credit, Arthur "OG" Barclay came to the debate on Thursday for the entire event and stayed afterwards taking questions.

  1. Facts don’t come out

During the debate and throughout this and other political campaigns, taxes, crime, the influence of Community Development Corporations (like PBCIP or Heart of Camden) public education, were discussed. As a student of these issues for ten years, I was disturbed by how often myths were stated as facts or candidates seemed to not have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of local government in New Jersey. This does not mean that they are not qualified to be in city government, however, it is disappointing that people seem to not know or care about the facts.

For example, a question was asked about tax revenue for Camden schools. No one mentioned a simple and easy to find fact - the district collects very little for Camden schools from property taxes. Out of a budget that is over $350M, only $7.5M is collected from Camden property taxes. Most of the revenue for Camden schools - district, renaissance, and charter - comes from taxes collected throughout the state. With a 2% limit, if the city actually did raise taxes it would increase the budget by only $150,000. 

This is one big reason why the state has influence on what happens in the school district. Yes, this is a complicated issue. After three years of studying the school budget as a board member, I admit that I still don’t fully understand the complicated figures and calculations. But I know that the answers all the candidates gave were inadequate.

Source: click here

I also know that not enough money gets to the classroom. The evidence of this is not enough technology, books, microscopes, calculators, or many other things that students need to truly get a thorough and efficient education.

  1. We have gangs!

In the debate on Thursday night, there was no mention of gang violence. What? We dishonor our youth and disrespect the dead and their families if we deny that many of the murdered victims were targets. Government programs are not the answer either. Government is not the cure for Camden crime. At least not how it's been done so far. But I digress...

  1. Metro and Paymon aren’t leaving

For the second city election, I heard candidates that are otherwise seemingly intelligent people claim that they would rid the city of Metro police. They will not and cannot so should not say they will. Either they are ignorant of the basic nature of local politics and government or are making sleazy pleas to residents angry with the over zealousness of some police officers.

On what path does the Metro county police department leave and get replaced with a city force? Christie is governor, the mayor has two years left to her term.

The better fight is for a police oversight board, like what Newark has. We already have the DCCBs. The structure is in place, but the DCCBs power would grow enormously if they were a civilian review board. This could have been a huge campaign idea for the opposition. But for some reason, it wasn't. See the story here.

I have sat in many meetings where people call on the superintendent to resign. I didn't actually hear this arguement at the debate, but I am discussing it anyway. We don’t have an elected school board (yet). Christie, who ultimately picked Paymon Rouhanifard, is governor and will remain so. The democrats will likely stay in control of the state senate and assembly. Paymon’s contract was renewed recently. KIPP and other schools have new buildings. They are not going anywhere. They are here to stay. Even if Paymon quit or was fired today, which is extremely unlikely, he would be replaced with someone by the same team that hired him. Calling for his resignation may be a great rally cry for some events, but it does not lead to actually improving the enormous and untouched issues that remain in schools.

I urge all of the candidates to think about the practicality of their ideas.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Pipe Stops Here

Too many black boys get suspended too many times for too many infractions at too many schools. This has been true in Camden. This is true across the United States.

At Bonsall, which sits in the most violent neighborhood in New Jersey, over 25% of students were suspended last year.

Last week in Camden, the superintendent announced [see it here, starting at 6:12] that proactive steps would be taken to introduce a new discipline procedure and rules for suspension.  Below is an image of the slide that Paymon gave.

This is an important step, but verification and follow up are key. Just because a superintendent says something, no matter how noble, it does not mean that it will be done.
We know that many criminals that lurk our streets with guns are themselves victims of an unjust discipline process in schools that lack true due process. One of the many strategies that can make Camden a safer city, is working with those in power that are doing their part in ending the school to prison pipeline. You can see my comments about this at the last Advisory Board meeting here, beginning at 56:00.
In 2013, after learning about this crisis at a school board conference, I began the steps to address this issue. Teachers and principals were excited to be involved. I was the chairman of the policy committee, but acted as a facilitator. The goal was to adopt new rules and limit the ten day suspension. At some schools, students were suspended without hearings, without counseling to alleviate future similar incidents, and without following the basic rules of the district’s own code of conduct.
At the meetings, mostly everyone thought that empowering teachers to manage their classroom with approved rules and supportive principals was invaluable.  Not everyone was on the same page. One principal proudly told us that she would suspend her middle school students for seven days, by dishing out suspensions consecutively for different infractions in the same incident. Three days for this and four days for that. [She’s no longer a principal in the district.] Principals, directors, teachers, and parents gave their feedback on changing the discipline code. Its current state was a mess. The school districts official rules for student discipline were problematic. It told principals to punish first and twelfth graders the same way. It was harsh. Third infractions in one school year often we to meant with ten day suspensions. Two full weeks. One fifth of a marking period.

Below is a screenshot of the original agenda, when I brought this issue to the Policy Committee.

I congratulate Paymon for taking this step. I think that this policy update can save lives for years to come. It isn’t enough. It comes too late. But in these days where the community feels that it is held captive by criminals and ignored by their political leaders, this is an important step. This means that more students will spend more days in the classroom learning. But those schools must be safe and the teachers must be able to teach with a solid curriculum and resources.
The community can support this by constantly talking about education and expressing the value of it. The messages of respect and studying must be expressed consistently. How are your grades? You staying out of trouble? The community is counting on you.

We must also continue to question Paymon, the Advisory Board, and principals to not let this issue fade from fatigue of the five point plan. We need more in-house suspension, more teachers and administrators from similar poor urban communities, and more after school activities for students. The work continues.