Urban Education

No-Shows Vex Camden Board

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The Camden, N.J., school board has been having a bit of difficulty lately. And it’s not the usual newsmaking sort involving bickering members.

In Camden, they just can’t get enough members to show up to do business. Bills have gone unpaid. Personnel decisions have languished.

Three board members have missed a total of 41 meetings since last April. Because the nine-member board already had two vacancies, the absences deprived it of a quorum, forcing it to cancel meetings 11 times.

A heating-systems repairman, tired of waiting for his $250,000, threatened to halt work for the 18,500-student district unless he was paid soon, said board President Philip E. Freeman. Special permission from the state allowed the payment.

Mr. Freeman sent the three chronic absentees a letter last month urging them to quit if they can’t uphold their duties. One resigned, citing health problems. That left one-third of the seats vacant.

“It’s quite embarrassing,” Mr. Freeman said. “It’s humiliating for me and for those of us who regularly attend meetings. For us to be irresponsible, to me, is a detriment to our children.”

A 2002 state law dictated that Camden’s board have three elected members, three appointed by the mayor, and three by the governor. The three current vacancies would be gubernatorial choices. Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey has pledged to fill them by the board’s next regular meeting, Jan. 31.

But in the meantime, the situation is generating some humor along with the embarrassment and anger. In his list of predictions for 2005, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Dave Boyer suggested that AWOL board members’ photos might start showing up on milk cartons in convenience stores across South Jersey.

But it’s no laughing matter to official New Jersey. Secretary of Education William L. Librera authorized Camden Superintendent Annette D. Knox to sign off on the basics to keep the district running, such as paying utility bills, or approving payroll.

One of the members accused of being frequently absent, Luis Lopez, says he thinks he’s only missed a few meetings. But Mr. Freeman said: “Our records are very accurate. The numbers don’t lie.”

Vol. 24, Issue 19, Page 14

Published in Print: January 19, 2005, as No-Shows Vex Camden Board

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