Vernon to recognigure schools

| 05 Apr 2017 | 01:16

Plans for a major shake up of the Vernon Township School District are underway, which will reconfigure the different grade levels at each of the six school buildings beginning this September.
The plans — which were approved by the Board of Education in February — are in response to changing demographics within the district, according to school officials, but have received mixed feedback from Vernon parents.
Over the past several years, the district has talked about various options to deal with a 39 percent decrease in enrollment, a loss of about 1,800 students over the past decade, including the possibility of repurposing or closing a school. After a plan proposed last year to repurpose Cedar Mountain School fell through due to community opposition, and with the Walnut Ridge Primary School currently at full capacity, Superintendent Art DiBenedetto said he now feels this is the best option for the district.
“We had a bump in enrollment in the lower grade levels,” DiBenedetto said at a town hall-style meeting of about 150 people in February. “We’ve spent a lot of time meeting with people who have moved into the district. We’ve discovered that there has been a significant lessening of restrictions on remortgaged homes from banks, and the banks are beginning to release foreclosures. So we’re getting an influx of new citizens.
“But we’ve had some growth at kindergarten and first grade, so much so, that we added a kindergarten section last summer for this school year because of the bump we had in enrollment,” DiBenedetto continued. “So it’s an interesting problem to have.”
Since the Walnut Ridge school is currently at full capacity (about 511 students), the plan is to move kindergarten to the Cedar Mountain school and move the district offices from the Central Office building on Route 515 into Walnut Ridge. Three other grade levels would also shift: second grade would move from Cedar Mountain to the Rolling Hills school, fourth grade would move from Rolling Hills to Lounsberry Hollow and sixth grade would move from Lounsberry Hollow to the Glen Meadow school.
The plan was approved by the Board of Education on Feb. 16, with a 6-3 vote.
The school with the biggest increase in students will be Glen Meadow, with an approximate increase of 241 students. According to DiBenedetto, Glen Meadow Principal Pauline Anderson has assured him that the school can “comfortably hold” the three grades with the number of classrooms available and can successfully be educated.
Walnut Ridge will see the largest decrease, with 421 students moving to Cedar Mountain, leaving four classrooms full of preschoolers. The high school is the only building that will remain unchanged, keeping grades 9-12.
Assistant Superintendent Charles McKay said due to their recent efforts to retain eighth-graders considering going to a charter or private school for high school, for the first time in eight or nine years, the eighth-grade class coming into high school is close to the number of students in the current graduating class.
Other reasons for the reconfiguration plan include trying to keep each grade level together in the same building and having the central offices closer to the schools. DiBenedetto also said that there will be significant cost savings from consolidating bus routes and closing the central office building, with the potential to sell the building and reap that revenue in the future.
“We have been overfunded by the state of New Jersey in terms of state aid,” DiBenedetto said at the forum. “I don't believe that is going to continue. So we are looking for every financial efficiency that we can get our hands on.”
DiBenedetto also said that no staff member will lose their job due to the reconfiguration. Retention of jobs is based on performance, enrollment and retirements, he said, and the reconfiguration has no bearing on this.
ConcernsParents and community members have voiced their concerns about the plan, with some offering other options at the forum. One option brought by several attendees was to have the preschoolers move to the high school.
DiBenedetto and McKay said that since bathrooms are required in preschool classrooms and the high school does not have a basement, but rather is built on a slab, putting in bathrooms in those classrooms would be extremely costly, something another attendee disputed.
Another major concern is moving the kindergartners from the Walnut Ridge school, a building that has seen a lot of recent upgrades and additional programs using School and Community Association money. DiBenedetto and McKay said that with the increase in incoming preschoolers, some students will have to move out of Walnut Ridge no matter what.
One parent suggested pre-K and kindergarten stay at Walnut Ridge, and first grade be split between Rolling Hills and Cedar Mountain, which would mean less change throughout the district. One parent pointed out that kindergarteners currently at Walnut Ridge will move to Cedar Mountain and then to Rolling Hills, meaning they will be at three different schools in three years. DiBenedetto said,
“That happens sometimes," DiBenedetto said. "It’s not great, but it happens.”
Other parents were concerned with their child being on the bus longer with the consolidation of bus routes. A complete bus route plan has not been made, DiBenedetto said, but some students will likely be on the bus for 10 to 15 minutes longer than before.
Demographic shiftNot only is the plan in response to the changing enrollment at Vernon schools, but to the changing demographics in Vernon Township.
According to McKay, in 2000, the average age of a Vernon resident was 35. In 2010, the average age of a Vernon resident climbed to 42.
“Vernon became an older community,” McKay said. “When older communities start to voice their opinion, they have opinions too and they put pressure on the Board of Ed, they put pressure on the superintendent, and the reality is, we have lost a lot of children.
“We are doing everything in our power to keep our buildings open and to keep these buildings viable, because if we close a building, to reopen it again, you have to go to code and it costs millions of dollars,” Mckay continued. “So we’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure that this district remains vibrant, we do all these great programs.”
DiBenedetto said that he feels the plan is not an overwhelming task, but something that the district can definitely do.
“Change hurts,” he said. “That is true. Bt if we don’t change, we’re going to fall behind. We cannot afford to fall behind.”