District hears comments, suggestions on consolidation from residents

Kenneth R. Olson Middle School's library was packed with teachers, residents and parents on Dec. 16 as they questioned how consolidation would affect students and offered other solutions to save money.

Residents of Tabernacle such as Keith Antolik, left, and Colleen Doyle, right, spoke at the Dec. 16 board of education meeting to offer suggestions, seek clarifications or comment on the district’s proposed consolidation involving its two schools, Olson Middle and Tabernacle Elementary schools (Krystal Nurse/The Sun).

The Tabernacle Board of Education welcomed suggestions and comments to learn how and if it should move forward on consolidating grades to either building.

After learning recently about the district’s financial future in regard to state funding and enrollment, the board examined the means necessary to present the option of moving grades second, third and fourth to Olson Middle School from Tabernacle Elementary to save hundreds of thousands of dollars. The board further welcomed the community to its Dec. 16 board meeting, to which many people showed up.

The district is expected to lose around $2.6 million in state aid by the 2024-2025 school year.

I can’t, due to legal and ethical constraints, discuss specific personnel, but the savings we’re looking to achieve from consolidation is about $200,000 the first year, and $291,000 the year after that,” Brian Lepsis, BOE finance chair, said.

“Those savings come from electrical and HVAC, roughly $59,000. Through non-certificated staff through attrition we hope to save about $225,000 and then some through softer costs of supplies and maintenance materials. That’s about $290,000 total.”

First-year net savings, $196,188.65 exactly, were estimated following expenditures for a contractual obligation with the teachers’ union of $39,759.65; separation panels for the middle school gym, $10,000; and costs for building a playground at OMS, $45,000; Total for one-time expenses is $94,759.65.

The front end of TES, as it is seen from New Road, will remain open, including the cafeteria and classrooms for first grade, kindergarten and preschool students.

Facilities Manager Keith Higginbotham said TES has the capability to close down portions of its buildings because they were built in segments. The segments in the building allow for Higginbotham to put the HVAC in “unoccupied” mode, which means to allow it to be climate controlled, without having to heat or cool it for occupants.

Other maintenance such as water wells have the capability to be shut down as well.

But the expenditure savings do not support moving students from the middle school to the elementary school as grounds staff are unable to place HVAC units in unoccupied mode, because they are over large swaths of square footage. Maintenance costs, Higginbotham said following the meeting, would remain the same.

Lepsis also repeated throughout the meeting that TES cannot handle that amount of students migrating over to “further crowd classrooms” nor can it accommodate activity space.

With Tabernacle’s dwindling enrollment and few replacements coming in, the board devised the plan as one of “many possible cost-saving measures” to avoid having to cut staffing or affect students’ experience.

A map of both buildings’ wings and maintenance layouts could not be shown at the meeting because of security and safety reasons.

Parent Tiashia Jackson inquired if students who hold Individualized Educational Plans will be accommodated if they fall into the grades being moved, to which Superintendent Glenn Robbins replied that services will continue and work is being done to make sure students are accommodated properly.

Union co-presidents Tom Crilley and Juliann Toone stated to the board they understand what the district is going through and reminded them to be mindful of the “already stretched-thin” staff. The duo reiterated they will work with the board as much as possible to assist in the cuts, but also keep the personnel and students’ priorities in mind.

These decisions are difficult and we are supporting you in this, and we just ask for transparency on this so we can do this together,” Toone said. 

Many parents approached the board offering their concerns about putting second- or third-graders in the same building as eighth-graders, a nod to statistics on mental health and suicide rates in primary school-age children. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in 100,000 children ages 10 to 14 die by suicide each year.

I’m worried a statistic you mentioned earlier that is devastating, young kids committing suicide because of bullying and things of that nature,” Parent Amanda O’Hara said. “We’re combining younger kids, who are already starting to learn the ways of the world far too early, with younger kids who have expressed things far beyond their mental capability of understanding.”

State departments of both education and health have requirements for the future mental health programs in schools, but the board considers it an “unfunded mandate,” while it does have other programs in place to address it.

Other parents approached the board and echoed O’Hara’s concerns as board member Gail Corey emphatically explained that older students, staff and administrators should be advocating for the younger students and protecting them.

We have to have faith they’re going to protect your child, and I’m not hearing that at all,” Corey passionately stated. “I’m hearing you’re afraid or fearful that they won’t protect your children and that’s their job. I have faith they will be diligent and care for your second-graders.”

Rebecca Warren, who has an eighth grader in the district, said she felt “offended” by many of the statements made about eighth graders and said kids learn more on social media than what they do from the older kids.

Keith Antolik, who identified himself as a resident, said kids shouldn’t be trusted to watch over other kids, as it’s not their duty. Earlier in the meeting, he also inquired if the union will take pay cuts, cuts in health care or early retirements — for “those eligible” — to save costs, to which Board President Victoria Shoemaker denied to comment, because of ongoing contract negotiation.

Union co-presidents, following the meeting, said they would never ask a staff member to retire early or do anything outside of their contract obligations.

Others inquired if state aid could be given back to the district if enrollment spikes. Business Administrator Jessica DeWysockie said it’s not going to happen. If enrollment were to drastically go up, she said aid would be readjusted accordingly. However, no school district knows the state Department of Education’s calculation formula. (Robbins said the Toms River School District has filed Open Public Records Act requests and sued for it to be public, without success.)

Colleen Doyle inquired if the elementary school’s library will remain, as some kids do not have the capability to visit libraries elsewhere. Lepsis replied that the library will close because it is in the section of the school being put into unoccupied mode, and in-classroom libraries offer a better learning experience.

Studies show that in-classroom libraries are more effective than standard libraries at a certain age,” he added. “We’re going to do the best we can with the resources we have.

Shoemaker clarified regionalization is still an option, but it is not because the board needs the support of all intended school districts and their respective governments to OK the measure before placing it on a ballot. Afterward, it would cost roughly $75,000 for the feasibility study to be done, which many districts would need prior to moving forward. Once everything’s set in stone, she said, there’s a holding period of 10 years before any district can do anything to change regionalization.

Lepsis said the board is “entertaining all offers” to save money as they brainstorm other measures, one of which includes making Robbins’ position into a dual one where a principal is also the superintendent. His resignation was approved for Jan. 31.

At the end of the meeting, the board agreed to have Parker McCay, a law firm in Mount Laurel, send a notice to the county to approve for an interim superintendent role. Shoemaker said after the meeting a joint position would result in $100,000 in savings for personnel.

Elsewhere in the state, a resolution was passed at the state’s school board association meeting to exceed the 2 percent tax levy cap for school districts. A formal bill has not yet landed on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for his approval.

Members of the board and public reiterated to one another they will look for ways to save money as best as they can so as to not affect staffing or students’ learning experience.

Further suggestions or questions on the consolidation can be made by visiting TabSchools.org; the survey is available for a limited time. The next board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 6 at 6 p.m. at Olson Middle School.

Some of you probably think we’re the grim reapers. I do check social media sometimes and people think we’re out to cut jobs and gut the schools, but nothing can be further from the truth,” Lepsis said. “We’re trying to save the schools and along the way, save as many jobs as possible.”