Evesham Township Council and the Evesham Planning Board have filed a joint lawsuit against the Evesham Township Board of Education regarding the BOE’s decision to close Evans Elementary School.
Township officials and Mayor Randy brown announced the suit at press conference on May 2, at which time they outlined the fundamentals of the complaint.
According to township manager Tom Czerniecki, an application to close a school has to be filed with the state Department of Education, with assurances the closing is consistent with the district’s long-range facilities plan.
Czerniecki said the district’s most recent plan dated 2009 indicates there will be no partial or whole building demolition or discontinuation of use.
According to Czerniecki, to amend long-range facilities plans, school districts are required by law to submit those plans to the municipal planning board for review.
Czerniecki said the BOE has not submitted a plan for review, and it is the belief of the township and planning board that for the board of education to proceed with its application to the state to close Evans, the district must still first amend its long-range facilities plan.
Czerniecki also said the township and planning board also felt there were “gaps” in the district’s demographic studies that the district and BOE used in the decision to close Evans.
While Czerniecki said the township and planning board were still open to working with the BOE, the board of education has already begun implementing the consolidation plan by shifting kindergarten and incoming students to other schools for the upcoming school year.
“Our ultimate goal is to have a discussion with the full board (BOE) and place our planning and demographic concerns on the record,” Czerniecki said.
According to Evesham Township School District Superintendent John Scavelli Jr., district enrollment peaked at 5,436 students in the 2002–2003 school year, dropping by about a 1,000 students to 4,440 students in the current 2015–2016 school year.
In the months leading to the BOE’s decision to close Evans, Scavelli said the district’s demography studies continued to predict a decline in enrollment, showing the district down to 4,080 students in the 2020–2021 school year.
By closing Evans, Scavelli said the district would save about $1.4 million and avoid cuts to staff and larger classes sizes that would otherwise become necessary.
Regarding the lawsuit, Scavelli said the state Department of Education has not required an official update to the long-range facilities plan since 2005, and the timing of the lawsuit was concerning to the district, as all of the required consolidation documents have been filed with the NJDOE and are under review.
Scavelli defended the board, saying the actions it took have been consistent with the law and have come only after “careful consideration and study” over the past several years.
According to Brown, the goal of the lawsuit was not to encroach on the BOE’s domain, but he said demography studies conducted by the township contradicted the district’s studies predicting the continued decline of district enrollment.
Brown said the township has 1,100 approved residential units, and another 473 approvable residential units, with existing home sales in the township up 22 percent over the last five years.
“As parents, we always tell our children to double check our work. Well I’m practicing what we preach,” Brown said.
Brown also said the township was fearful of creating a “housing bubble” if Evans were to close, resulting in a decrease of property values throughout the town, with the township then responsible for defending and paying a multitude of tax appeals.
“Our schools are neighborhood schools and you can’t be taking a neighborhood school out of a neighborhood, because in every study that’s been done, it’s an immediate 10 percent loss in value,” Brown said.