By ZANE CLARK
At its March 17 meeting, the Evesham Township School District Board of Education voted 6–3 to close Evans Elementary School effective the 2017–2018 school year.
With a nearly four-hour long meeting, most of the meeting’s public discussion was devoted to arguments for and against the Evans closure, with participation from residents, teachers and ultimately members of the board.
When the board voted in favor of the Evans closure, the decision was met with silence from both sides of an audience that had been constantly cheering and clapping throughout the duration of the meeting.
Board members Elaine Barbagiovanni, Jeff Bravo, Joseph DeJulius, Joseph Fisicaro Jr., Michele Hassall and Lisa Mansfield voted for the closure, while board members JoAnne Harmon, Nichole Stone and Sandy Student voted against.
Those who voted to close Evans cited declining enrollment in the district and the need to look out for all of Evesham’s students. Those who voted against the closure spoke about the need to explore other options before closing a school and said they worried about the negative impact such a decision could have on Evans students.
No board member disagreed when their fellow members spoke to the difficulty of the decision and how there would be those unhappy no matter the outcome.
The decision comes as district officials continue to outline declining enrollment figures for the district. Superintendent John Scavelli Jr. said enrollment was once as high as 5,436 students in the 2002–2003 school year, but that number has dropped by nearly 1,000 students to 4,440 in this current school year.
Enrollment numbers are also projected to continue declining in the coming years, with the current farthest projected 2020–2021 school year expected to leave the district with 4,080 students.
The closure of Evans is expected to bring a savings of $1.4 million to the district, and would reduce overall staffing levels by 25 employees, with the elimination of an administration employee, 10 professional employees and 14 support employees.
Scavelli has previously said those numbers are close to what the district averages in retirements each year, so the reduction is expected to come from attrition.
Current district plans do not involve selling Evans School, but rather leasing its space to other entities.
Evans students will be assigned to other schools in the district depending on their sending zone, but even with the additional Evans students, Scavelli said no school in the district would be at capacity.
Scavelli has also repeatedly said there wouldn’t be a relative impact on class sizes at any of the schools as a result of the Evans closure.
If the board voted against the Evans closure, Scavelli said larger class sizes and reductions in programs would become necessary in the coming years, as future budgets are projecting about a $500,000 annual shortfall.
Overall, Scavelli said he wouldn’t give information to the board if he didn’t believe it himself.
“I don’t put anything out that isn’t true, that isn’t factual,” Scavelli said. “I’m not a politician and I don’t plan to run for politics, so I don’t have to make stuff up.”
Many members of the public who spoke before the vote asked the board to explore other options and get more information before making their decision. Even Mayor Randy Brown spoke and implored the board to take a closer look at its budget and the value of the other properties it owns in town.
“You’re not ready to vote in an hour, you’re not ready to vote in a week,” Brown said as the crowd erupted in cheers.
Before the vote took place, Evans Principal Nick DiBlasi was also given time to speak. With the Evans closure, DiBlasi will also continue to work in the district, as he will replace Van Zant Principal Rosemary McMullan who is retiring in October. The district plans to hire an interim principal at Van Zant until Evans is closed and DiBlasi can assume the role.
DiBlasi said no matter the outcome, the Evans students would be alright as long as parents acted like role models they’re supposed to be.
“I think truly, regardless of the vote tonight, that is how Evesham Township School District becomes again what it needs to be,” DiBlasi said.
Board approves tentative 2016–2017 budget
In addition to the vote to close Evans School, the board took another significant vote at the March 17 meeting when it approved the tentative 2016–2017 school year budget.
Scavelli said the tentative budget totaled $73.3 million, which was a decrease from the $74.1 million he outlined at a series of community meetings several weeks ago.
With the tentative budget, Evesham residents with homes assessed at the average price of $269,900 would see a $78.24 tax increase for their K-8 school taxes next year.
Although the newest figures for the tentative budget are still less than what was originally presented several weeks ago, the district is still looking to raise taxes beyond the 2 percent tax levy increase cap mandated by the state through the use of banked cap.
However, the biggest difference from the budget Scavelli presented to the public several weeks ago was the removal of a nearly $700,000 referendum the district would have sought in November to pay for an expansion of the current police coverage in Evesham’s schools.
Currently, the township and district have a shared services agreement for the program, which Evesham officials have said costs $500,000, with the township paying $300,000 and the district paying $200,000.
At a press conference on March 16, Brown and Evesham Police Chief Christopher Chew announced a plan where the Evesham Police Department offered to pay for the entire cost of the current agreement between the district and municipality.
At the press conference, Chew described the current arrangement as having been an “overwhelming success,” and at a previous township council meeting, Chew said he believed the agreement provides more than adequate police coverage for the district’s schools.
With the additional funds from the township, combined with other changes in projected revenues and budget costs for the district, Scavelli said the district no longer needed the referendum.
Evesham Township manager Tom Czerniecki said the municipality could ill-afford to fund the entire agreement, but the decision to do so was made to remove any confusion over whether keeping police in schools was somehow tied to the potential closure of Evans Elementary School.
“The last thing any of us want is for our men and women in uniform to be given the stinkeye by teachers, parents and students,” Czerniecki said.
For future budgets, Czerniecki said he would be pushing the board to address sharing the cost of the program.