The state of New Jersey moved to take over the Camden school district Monday, seeking to fix what officials said is a broken system that allows thousands of students in one of the nation's poorest cities to fail each year.
Gov. Chris Christie's administration filed the first legal paperwork necessary to assume control of a district in which 90 percent of the schools are among the bottom 5 percent in performance statewide. The district has 20 days to respond. Christie said the intervention could be complete as quickly as six to eight weeks, but it could be challenged in court.
"We're taking the lead because for too long the public school system in Camden has failed its children," Christie said, flanked by the mayor and some school officials at a news conference held at a high school.
Inaction, the Republican governor said, is "immoral."
Once approved, Camden — a crime-plagued city of 80,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia — will be the fourth urban district in New Jersey under state control. The others are Paterson, Jersey City and Newark, the state's largest city.
Camden's four-year graduation rate in 2012 was only 49 percent. Of those who do graduate, only one out of four do so by passing the state's high school exam. Only 2 percent of students score 1550 or higher on their SATs, a metric defined as indicating a high likelihood of college success and completion.
"The system is broken, and we need to take responsibility for fixing it," Christie said.
The state is already the main funder of the Camden school system. Christie said an August report assessing the needs of Camden's schools convinced him that more needed to be done in the city, which has 16,000 schoolchildren, including 4,000 in charter schools.
A transitional leadership team will immediately begin a 90-day review of all school operations, the administration said.
Once the state's takeover plan has been approved, the governor said he would appoint a new superintendent. A search is already under way, and the state plans to work within that system. It will also appoint three additional members to the school board, which will become advisory.
Christie said the state would also move to revamp curriculums, begin a search to put full-time teachers into slots now occupied by a rotation of substitutes, and ensure that every child has the necessary books and instructional materials.
The plan could also include a portfolio of new charter or Renaissance schools.
"We will exert whatever control we need to exert in order to bring success, Christie said, but stressing that he sees the intervention as a "partnership" between the state and city government and school officials.
In its request to the state Board of Education for full intervention in Camden, the state said the school board and school administration failed to effectively run the schools.
The application said the poor outcomes in Camden are not the result of a lack of resources. The city, which receives special state aid because of its poverty, spent $23,709 per student in the 2011-12 year, compared with a statewide average of $18,045.
Christie said the state would "be happy" to be involved in collective bargaining and said he did not speak with unions before moving to intervene in Camden. The state's largest teacher's union expressed reservations about a takeover.
Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Education Association, said that the track record for state-run districts is "questionable" and that Camden residents must be assured they will have a voice in the process.
"It is always preferable to have public schools managed by local communities," she said.
Rosemary Jackson, a Camden teacher, said she believes the state hasn't adequately funded the schools and she thinks the plan will fail.
"They have yet to talk to parents, yet to talk to teachers," Jackson said.
Ahmad Muhammad, a father of eight children in the school system, came to the announcement opposing the move. But listening to Christie changed his mind.
"I'm hopeful," he said. "It's worth a chance."
Mayor Dana Redd said there will be a series of community meetings to inform people of changes.
"The current status quo is failing our kids," Redd said. "We cannot wait any longer."