A seven-to-two vote signaled the shift of second, third and fourth grades from Tabernacle Elementary School to Olson Middle School to cut expenses, but the issue was met with frustration and questions from the public and Tabernacle School District Board of Education members.
Olson Middle School’s library was packed with teachers, parents and residents for the Jan. 3 board meeting, which focused on how dire state aid cuts are impacting the district, to the point of grade consolidation.
“We hear you and there are no good options,” board member Brian Lepsis admitted before the vote. “It’s one of those times where we remind people to be careful of what you wish for, because you just might get it. We’re hoping to move forward with consolidation, which it’s not a sure thing.
“I don’t think everyone is on the same page here.”
The Sun has previously reported on the feasibility of the district regionalizing with the sending Seneca High School districts (Southampton, Woodland and Shamong) in September 2019, the financial forecast for last November and consequentially, the proposed consolidation plan and the town hall forum that followed in December.
Board member Gail Corey — who later voted yes on the plan to consolidate grades — initially withheld her opinion on the subject and shifted the discussion to the idea of regionalization and privatizing positions, as other districts have.
Members Kevin McCloy and Megan Jones expressed frustration at consolidation and questioned what will happen in the future and the financials associated with the plan.
“We’re going from having (kindergarten through fourth grade) in that school to having (preschool through first grade) in that school. It’s going to drastically shrink it,” McCloy stressed.
“I don’t want to risk them being disadvantaged compared to the rest of the kids at OMS — and I don’t know that they will be. I’m not trying to fan flames of concerns or anything along those lines, because I don’t know the answer to that. None of us do.”
Resident and parent Steven Nahill expressed the same sentiment as McCloy during public comment, adding — falsely — that consolidation and the closing of TES are “pretty much the same thing.”
Consolidating second, third and fourth grade students from TES to OMS allows for the buildings and grounds department to place portions of the TES building in unoccupied mode, as the plan states. Unoccupied mode, as Facilities Manager Keith Higginbotham said at the board’s Dec. 16 meeting, allows for the school to be reopened in the future if the district experiences an influx of students and saves money on routine maintenance costs.
Closing the school entirely would cause the district to seek a Certificate of Occupancy, updating it to new standards that may have been added, along with other regulations.
Jones said she sought the opinion of the district’s interim superintendent, Thomas Christensen, because he has experience as a former assistant superintendent and was an educator in elementary and special education.
“There are going to be some cost to any movement, should we ever do it,” Jones said. “You’re not going to see it until year two — the full savings. There are down costs you have to deal with where you’ll get to the full savings.
“If we push it off if we have to consolidate. Is the problem not in this first year but the second year where you need that full savings and won’t have it until year two?”
Christensen advised the board to move forward with consolidation after he reviewed the plan and the district’s financials. He added he has been in positions where a bond referendum was put before residents and defeated at the polls, resulting later in staffing cuts to recover the lost money.
“I don’t see the benefit of waiting for a long period of time for a few more weeks,” Christensen opined. “It’s going to make it more and more difficult to have a budget that will be sent to the county and state.”
Teacher Stephen Cramer was worried about the quickness of the consolidation decision and believed the board had neglected to consider more public input.
“If you’ve been given the gift of having some administrators leave, some ability to move around on finances and there’s some cost savings until July as of right now, maybe you could slow down the consolidation and form a committee, which is overwhelmingly being asked for by the community,” he said.
Business Administrator Jessica DeWysockie — whose resignation was not yet accepted following executive session — said numbers on regionalization do include former Superintendent Glenn Robbins’ resignation along with others as of the Jan. 3 board meeting.
She added the sale of Sequoia’s former building in Tabernacle has not yet happened and refuted rumors that the Young Adolescents Learning Experience (Y.A.L.E.) School — an alternative school for students with special needs — will rent out TES.
Resident Greg Heins argued the board’s move violates the state’s School Ethics Act, which all board of education members sign. During public comment, he said the board’s vote to consolidate negatively affects students’ educational well-being.
“When a school board is voting to take away opportunities for students to learn in a rewarding environment, removing the library and other core components of a school, (students) are held to a disadvantage,” Heins noted following the meeting.
The board admitted no one knows if the library, art room, collaboratory or other extra classes will remain at TES or in a cart, to the frustration of its members and the public. Parents commented that kids need breaks from their classrooms for emotional, social and educational health, and they fear that opportunity will not be available following consolidation.
Board members Col. Stephen Henske, Lepsis and Dan Dilks all expressed frustration over comments made on social media accusing the board of having hidden agendas, not being transparent and being incompetent.
“I’ve been accused of corruption, greed and ‘hidden agendas’ … these are not easy decisions to make,” Lepsis quipped. “We’re trying to make them as open and as transparent as possible.
“Part of the reason why I’m on the board is because I was unhappy with the lack of transparency in the past.”
Henske said the board has kept everyone informed with public meetings, town halls, fielding of questions and suggestions from the public, published answers to the questions, surveys of parents and teachers and coffee and conversation events for the public to interact with the administrative team.
“When I see on social media or stated in these meetings that ‘the BOE is not being transparent,’ I find comfort in parents who challenge those statements and ask people to utilize all of the opportunities to be informed,” Henske expressed.
Following the meeting, Board President Megan Chamberlain addressed the disparity in comments made by board members on whether staff cuts are needed. She said the district does not want to cut teachers but that doesn’t mean such cuts will not occur.
“It means that if we need to non-renew teachers to make the budget after everything else is said and done, it could potentially be an option,” she added. “Nothing is off the table.
“I don’t want anybody to believe that going through with this consolidation will be the cure-all to our problem.”
The consolidation measure passed, with Jones and McCloy also voting no. Consolidation is scheduled to occur on or around July 1, as stated in the board agenda.
Residents can learn about the impact of cuts on Lenape Region during a forum on Feb. 13, at 6:30 p.m. at Lenape High School, 235 Hartford Road, Medford. The forum will include the Lenape Regional High School District and the receiving school districts, including Tabernacle.
Tabernacle residents pay taxes to two school districts: Lenape Regional and Tabernacle. DeWysockie plans to present the disrict’s budget by the March 20 deadline set by the county’s superintendent.
“We’re trying to get ahead of the gun instead of behind the eight ball,” Chamberlain shared. “There’s no certainty in any of this. We have ideas, and until we know numbers and realities, we can’t proceed.
“That’s why we needed to make this vote tonight so we can have a plan in place.“