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N.J. Auditors Cite District's Waste, Nepotism

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A state review of the Camden, N.J., schools has found a bloated bureaucracy that is misspending at least $32 million, hiring friends and relatives of school officials, and using an unsafe administration building that it may not be legally entitled to occupy.

"This report raises serious questions about the priorities of the Camden city board of education," said a statement issued by state Treasurer Brian W. Clymer with the report's release this month.

The treasurer's office conducted the review at the request of the Camden school board, under a voluntary program to root out government waste.

Although the study is not linked directly to a takeover bid, Camden is a potential target of state intervention. A pioneer of the state-takeover movement, New Jersey already runs three other urban districts, including the largest--Newark.

Just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden is the poorest city in New Jersey and one of the poorest in the nation. The state provides 86.6 percent of the district's $197 million budget. The district spends $10,307 per pupil.

Among other findings, the report on the 20,000-student district says that:

  • Camden spends between $315 and $393 per student more on administrative costs than the comparable districts of Paterson and Elizabeth.
  • The district has too many employees and could save more than $8 million by cutting back on staffing. For example, compared with other districts and with industry standards, the district has 336 more food-service workers than necessary, the report says. In recent years, the district has hired nearly one employee for each additional student added to its rolls.
  • Staff members receive too much extra pay and overtime beyond contract salaries. A total of 3,714 employees received $7.2 million in extra pay in 1994-95, or an average of more than $2,000 per worker.
  • In the absence of an anti-nepotism policy, new hires in the district are often relatives, friends, and supporters of school board members and administrators.
  • There is no official record of the board approving lease or purchase of the district's administration building, which, according to the report, contains asbestos and has such poor air quality that it appears to be a health hazard to its 400 occupants. The reviewers recommended that the district vacate the premises immediately.

Takeover Shyness?

The Camden report is one of about 10 completed for New Jersey school districts under an anti-waste program that Gov. Christine Todd Whitman initiated. It is the largest district reviewed so far and the one with the most serious problems, a spokesman for the state treasurer's office said.

The state treasurer's report is separate from a parallel study now under way by the state education department and due out in the next few months. Because of Camden's troubles, that agency is closely monitoring the district. If it shows improvement, Camden could earn certification as meeting state standards; failure to do so could result in a state takeover.

But many of the report's findings sound strikingly similar to those in a study of Newark's operations prior to state seizure of that district.

Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz said in a statement that the Camden budget review "illustrates in graphic terms that unless money is used efficiently to support high standards and educational programs for children, the goal of improved educational results will never be achieved."

Peter Peretzman, a spokesman for the education department, declined to comment on the specifics of the review. But he said that because Camden was in the middle of the state monitoring spectrum, "a takeover is quite a ways off, if [it occurs] at all."

But Mr. Peretzman implied that the state was not eager to manage another district. "Our preference, he said, "is that [Camden officials] address the deficiencies and improve from within, and they will have ample opportunity to do so."

In response to the budget review, the Camden school board has named a blue-ribbon panel to review and implement the recommendations in the 110-page report wherever possible,according to the board. School officials were also considering hiring an independent firm to conduct a management-performance audit.

Bart Leff, a district spokesman, said last week that the treasurer's report was written on information from 1994-95 and that district officials have already addressed some of the concerns, but he could not specify what had been done.

Mr. Leff said district officials were trying to decide whether to repair or to vacate the eight-story administration building. He also defended the overtime pay some employees receive "when schools are being used 18 hours a day."

In addition, Mr. Leff pointed out that student test scores and attendance have improved in recent years.

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