I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, April 6, 2015

Camden State Superintendent Confirms: There's ALWAYS Money for Charter Schools

Earlier this week, Stephen Danley posted a remarkable piece of video. Camden's State Superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, met with parents to discuss the fate of McGraw Elementary School, one of five schools scheduled to be either closed or turned over to charter school operators under Rouhanifard's plan.

For nearly 40 minutes, Rouhanifard is intensely cross-examined by parents who are against the conversion of McGraw into a charter school run by the Philadelphia-based charter chain, Mastery. Understand that these parents had absolutely no say whatsoever in the takeover of their neighborhood school: Rouhanifard is free to do whatever he wants in Camden, including abdicating his responsibility to the district's schools.

Rouhanifard, like the superintendents in Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson, serves entirely at the pleasure of Governor Chris Christie. He has no need to answer to the parents, students, and taxpayers of Camden, as they have no ability to remove him through the political process if he ignores their wishes. In New Jersey, local accountability through democratic action is reserved for the suburbs; people of color in the large cities do not enjoy the same privileges:

As you can imagine, the parents in this video are clearly fed up with this state of affairs. What follows is a passionate yet ultimately unsurprising confrontation between people who are frustrated with their continuing disenfranchisement, and a man who apparently couldn't care less.

Before I get to the substance of Rouhanifard's answers, let's acknowledge something quite important: Governor Chris Christie said he chose Paymon Rouhanifard to run Camden's schools because of his "track record." It's clear, after watching this video, that this record has nothing to do with Rouhandifard's very limited experienced in education; no, the "track record" that so impressed Christie is Rouhanifard's uncanny ability to stoically ignore the complaints of parents.

Of course, Rouhanifard was trained to do just this under the tutelage of the master of parental disdain, New York City's former Chancellor of Schools, Joel Klein.

That's Paymon back in 2012 when he worked in New York City, passively taking a verbal beatdown from the intrepid Leonie Haimson, NYC's foremost parent advocate. When I found out Rouhanifard was coming to Camden, I asked Leonie about his tenure in Gotham; she told me his job was to basically push through charter school colocations over the objections of local parents, all while barely pretending to heed their concerns.

What's interesting is that even as Paymon was thickening up his skin in Brooklyn, the NJDOE, with the generous support of the Broad Foundation, was already hatching "secret" plans to take over Camden's schools and dismantle the local district. Given that then-ACTING Education Commissioner Chris Cerf had just come from Klein's NYCDOE, it's no surprise Rouhanifard got the job. The last thing Cerf and Christie ever wanted for Camden was an experienced educator; all they required was someone who would follow orders and wouldn't mind being yelled at.

Give Rouhanifard credit: he may not know anything about actually running schools, but he is a master of phony solicitude. Dig a little deeper into his words, however, and you'll find he can't help but give away the real game:
(3:50) Guys, I want to respond to your questions and concerns; it's hard to do that when everyone's shouting over me. And I'm happy to let you all shout over me for 90 minutes straight if that's what you want to do.  
What I'm trying to communicate to you is that these are not easy decisions to make. And we're doing this because the district and their finances can't renovate this building the same way one of our partners can. And that's a financial decision.  
Now that is very interesting. And it's not a fluke, because Rouhanifard says the same thing just a few minutes later:
(7:52) I'd love to be able to properly address some of the parents' questions here. I want to be helpful. Look, I get that there are anxieties. Guys, for the last three decades, our buildings in this city are falling apart. We haven't had the money to fix them. We don't have the district finances to fix them. Through this partnership, this is our opportunity to do it.  
And academic performance has been falling every year for the last 30 years. So this is our opportunity to do something different. To do something different that we believe will fundamentally improve the quality of education in Camden, and I want to have a conversation about that.  
If you all want to throw rocks at me, by all means. By all means. Not literally. By all means.
A little background is in order:

When Chris Christie fully took over the administration of the Camden City School District in 2013, there was a misperception in some quarters that the district had autonomous up until that point. Nothing could be further from the truth: since 2006, CCSD had been overseen by a state-appointed monitor, who had broad discretion over all aspects of the district's management. The governor actually had veto power over the school board as early as 2002, and several seats on the board were appointees of the governor.

So if there hasn't been any money to renovate CCSD schools, let alone properly maintain them, that's due at least in part to the management of the state itself -- the same state that now employs Rouhanifard. 

The same state that sets the funding for schools, then refuses to follow through on providing money for its own formula. The same state that promised the parents and students of Camden a new district school at Lanning Square, then reneged on that promise and turned over the property to a charter operator that had already failed in Camden.

Of course, there always seems to be enough money for the charter schools in Camden. LEAP Academy, for example opened a brand new facility in 2012, financed with bonds that were never available to the district. Chris Cerf proudly cut the ribbon at the dedication of the building.

That's Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, founder of LEAP, to Cerf's left. I wonder if her overpriced boyfriend took time off from making the students lunch to provide all the dignitaries with refreshments...

LEAP recently got yet another round of funding for capital improvements, no doubt taking advantage of all kinds of tax goodies that, again, are not available to the district schools. The leaders of Camden's charter schools are good at working out these kinds of deals for themselves; Vahan Gureghian, founder of Camden Community Charter School, has had a great deal in Chester, PA for years.

And now here come the so-called "Renaissance Schools," charter schools by another name. TEAM Academy gets to take over the land at Lanning Square and set its own pace in serving the district's students; object, and you will be promptly removed from your office by the South Jersey Democratic machine. Uncommon Schools gets similar support from this same machine, despite its atrocious record on student attrition in Newark. And Mastery gets to take over McGraw, where it will undoubtedly install its controversial discipline practices.

As Rouhanifard says: there's plenty of financing available to help set up these charter operators. But somehow, he can't convince the state to step up and provide funds for renovating Camden's own district schools. And that's hardly the district's fault, as it has been under varying forms of state control for the last 13 years.

Rouhanifard digs his hands in his pockets and shrugs his shoulders: what can he do? He is convinced that he has no choice but to turn over the schools for which he is responsible to outside forces. It's not his place, apparently, to point out that the gobs of money and land available to the charter operators ought to also be made available to the district.

No, Paymon's sad task is to instead tell you "guys"* in Camden that the only way he can come up with the money to fix things is to force you to give up your rights and put your children into privately managed schools. Hey, you can always "vote with your feet" -- just don't expect to vote with your vote, and don't expect to get the same sources of financing for your kids' schools if you choose to keep them in the district.

Strangely, Rouhanifard didn't always feel this way:
"We don't have a lack of resources here. We have an improper allocation of those resources," the district's state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has said.
The most divisive expenditure in the district's budget - and one of the most costly - is the $72 million it would transfer to charter and renaissance (district-charter hybrid) schools next year, contributing to per-pupil costs.
The transfer funds increased $17 million to make way for three additional renaissance schools expected to open in the fall. Two are still waiting for state approval.
"There is this perception we're taking resources out of district schools, and it couldn't be further from the truth," Rouhanifard said. "Our per-pupil goes up when families go to charter schools. We think of it as an investment. It's a very fair formula here." [emphasis mine]
That was almost exactly a year ago; back then, Rouhanifard said the shifting of funds to charters was "very fair." Now, he cries poverty as an excuse for charter school expansion. Funny how things changed so quickly...

Again: this is all going according to a plan that was drawn up by the proteges of a California billionaire years ago. Camden, like New Orleans, Newark, and other struggling cities, is an experiment in urban school privatization: an experiment conducted on other people's children.

And Paymon Rouhanifard's job is to conduct this experiment while telling parents, teachers, and students that he has no choice but to do so. That's no surprise: Rouhanifard was never qualified to actually run a school system. If, however, you want to dismantle a district, Paymon is clearly your guy.

ADDING: Owen Davis reminds us that ALL of the federal money disbursed so far for school construction financing in New Jersey has gone to charter schools:
When a charter school moves into a new building, it's not unusual to see millions of dollars poured into renovations ranging from structural repairs to slick paint jobs. In the case of a school like Hawthorne [Newark Public Schools], plugging the leaky ceilings and safeguarding against mold would likely be top priorities.
The 2009 federal stimulus authorized states to allocate $22 billion in qualified school construction bonds (QSCBs), which allow cash-strapped schools to secure interest-free bond financing. Banks that finance school construction receive subsidies from the feds equivalent to some benchmark interest rate around 5 percent. Banks can pull in a tidy profit, as can the motley cast of counsels and intermediaries who ink the deals.
Of the $440 million in QSCBs New Jersey received, nearly three-quarters have been approved - and so far, every penny has gone to charters. TEAM Academy alone gobbled up $138 million. This exclusive allocation of QSCBs to charter schools is highly unusual. California and Texas, for comparison, each allocated less than one-fifth of their QSCBs to charter schools. 
To be sure, QSCBs aren't free money. Moreover, New Jersey charters "receive no facilities aid whatsoever," says Rick Pressler of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. Accordingly, they have to be "very creative about how they're going to finance their facilities."
And creative they've been. Newark charters have become "infamous for being able to leverage their bonds to flip buildings," says Wyatt, and some of the city's most contested charter projects have been buoyed by QSCBs. When NPS sold 18th Avenue School, a district school it had just closed, to TEAM Academy, the charter used $40 million in QSCBs to finance it. [emphasis mine]
Rouhanifard is right: CCSD can't finance school reconstruction the way charters can -- because the game is rigged in the charters' favor.

ADDING MORE: One more note from the past:
The intervention proposal, which was obtained by the Courier-Post, was written by Department of Education employee Bing Howell. 
He did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment. 
Howell serves as a liaison to Camden for the creation of four Urban Hope Act charter schools. He reports directly to the deputy commissioner of education, Andy Smerick [sic].
Howell’s proposal suggests that he oversee the intervention through portfolio management — providing a range of school options with the state, not the district, overseeing the options. He would be assisted by Rochelle Sinclair, another DOE employee. Both Howell and Sinclair are fellows of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation. [emphasis mine]
Andy is a big proponent of "relinquishment," a fancy word meaning "destroying local school systems run by democratically elected school boards."

He's also one of the few people to ever block me on Twitter. Golly, wonder why...

* Maybe I'm just an old fart, but it really bugs me that the state-appointed superintendent of one of the largest districts in New Jersey thinks it's perfectly fine to address the parents of his city like he's a waiter at Applebee's. Calling parents "guys" is exactly the sort of amateurish and unintentionally (?) disrespectful language that makes me think Rouhanifard is way out of his depth.


Jim Horn said...

Nice work, indeed.

P. Grunther said...

Sickening, to say the least. Mark, do you have any updated news about a federal investigation of TEAM's shenanigans down in Newark, such as the pink hoola hoop acquisition of the public school that you cite in your article?

Duke said...

Thx, Jim. P, no idea; that's Bob Braun's beat, but he's been under the weather. Hopefully, he'll make a speedy recovery and update us soon.

Angela Capobianco said...

So nice to see residents standing up, asking the right questions ... "Why not run this program in affluent districts?" BOOOOOOM!