FOX 29 Investigates: Camden Schools' Spending

FOX 29 Investigates: Camden Schools' Spending

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CAMDEN, N.J. -

Emmanuel Roldan is a 10-year-old elementary school student.

He's bright and friendly. His Mom says he's on the honor roll and she's happy with his teacher.

But she says she's fearful for his future.

Fearful because the fifth-grader is attending the struggling Camden City Public Schools, a 13,000-student district serving one of the nation's poorest cities with a graduation rate of under 50 percent, well below New Jersey's average.

"My son right now – I move to Cherry Hill or another District, he's an A and B student now. He's not going to be an A student in another district. He's going to be a D," Maria Roldan said.

It's the schools' dismal graduation rate and poor standardized test scores which prompted the state to take over Camden schools in June.

But it wasn't just the poor test results. It was the fact that in the 2011-'12 school year, Camden spent nearly $24,000 per student.

On average, that's about $6,000 more per child than every other district in New Jersey.

"We feel like there has not been enough scrutiny on where taxpayers' dollars are going," said Kyle Olson, founder of Education Action Group (EAG), a Michigan-based non-profit which says it's nonpartisan and focused on education reform.

Olson believes school districts are not helping kids when they spend big money on things like bowling and arcades.

More on that in a moment. First, some background on EAG. On the group's tax form filed with the IRS for the fiscal year starting in January of 2011, the organization reported revenue of $5.3 million and expenses of $3.5 million.

It does not release the names of its donors and would not do so when FOX 29 asked.

EAG's critics claim the group calls for transparency in public education but fails to list its own donors. They also accuse EAG of being anti-teachers' union.

Olson says the group's focus is improving schools and accountability.

"When you have huge amounts of students who are not proficient in reading and math, that's your primary mission, you're failing in that mission. That should be taken care of first," Olson said.

EAG filed Open Records Requests for the check registers of both the Camden and Trenton school districts to learn how they were spending their multi-million-dollar budgets.

EAG gave FOX 29 the results of its Open Records Requests. We showed them to the Camden and Trenton districts.

In Monday night's report, we focus on Camden. The district's big ticket item? Legal costs!

In the last school year, Camden spent nearly $1 million in legal fees and services. The total was $987,564 dollars.

Trenton Schools, a district of similar size, spent about a half-million dollars less.

Camden spent nearly $400,000 on professional development, training and conferences for its educators, and another $58,000 for student trips to the theater, from the Arden in Old City Philadelphia to Broadway.

The students of Woodrow Wilson High saw "Wicked" in New York for a ticket cost of just under $4,000.

The district spent $24,000 on bowling, movies and arcades. School officials told Camden's Board of Education that bowling at Pinsetters in Cherry Hill would improve students' "hand-eye coordination."

A trip to the Philadelphia Flyers' SkateZone was described as a chance for students to "expand muscle coordination, balance and rhythm."

And $20,000 in trips to amusement parks was meant to improve students "math and physics skills."

Maria Roldan appeared startled by some of the expenses.

"You're disappointed by the costs here?" Cole asked.

"It is disappointing, everything that we're hearing," she said. "Moneywise? Come on."

Medieval Times is a themed restaurant in New Jersey. The district told Camden's school board over $13,000 was spent there so students could "describe the role of people in Medieval Europe."

The startling total tab for restaurants and catering for Camden' schools last year? About $87,000.

The new, state-run administration of the Camden schools refused an on-camera interview.

In a statement, the superintendent wrote: "As part of our listening tour and evaluation of the district, we're working relentlessly to analyze past spending practices in Camden and intend to make the necessary changes to put resources where they matter most – our classrooms."

Olson of EAG said, "To me, it's very telling when you have these massive organizations that are spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, they're failing in their obligation to educate children, and they won't talk about it."

In total, Camden spends over $306 million to educate its 13,000 students, many from neighborhoods plagued by poverty – likely a big reason why the schools spent $160,000 last year on drug and alcohol and mental health counseling for students, Cole reported.

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