BARNEGAT, NJ - With a 6-3 majority, Barnegat Board of Education members voted to go ahead with the school reorganization plan recommended by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Latwis. Come September, students from all over the township with come together under one roof based on grade levels. Barnegat High School will remain the same.
The reconfiguration of the school district was initially planned to start this school year. In response to objections, Latwis agreed to delay the plan. He subsequently set up committees and invited parents and staff to become a part of the process.
Change is needed within the district because of a disparity in class size within the four elementary schools. Additionally, academic underperformance points to the critical need for improvement.
At a special meeting held by the Board of Education last week, the district’s administrative team outlined alternatives under consideration. The options compared several aspects of redistricting, sister schools, and grade banding. A few teachers spoke in favor of the grade banding model, which would include adding instructional coaches to each of the buildings.
A vocal group of parents has come out in opposition to the grade banding model. At the January Board of Education meeting, a number aired their concerns. Prior to the board members taking their final vote last night, at least 25 individuals reiterated their opposition to the plan. One was a third-grader who attends the Collins School, Kara Mills.
“If it (Collins School) changes, the kids will not be able to help each other,” said Kara as she stood by her mother. “For example, third graders have kindergarten buddies and we look forward to helping them with projects and teaching them new things.”
Kara also expressed her disappointment that the transition would mean that she would not be able to see her old teachers. She said that children would not “feel relaxed” if they needed to switch schools all the time.
Under the grade banding model put into place, Pre-K students will attend the Dunfee School. Children from kindergarten to second grade will go to the Collins School, while third and fourth grades will be housed at the Donahue School. The Horbelt School becomes the new home for fifth and sixth graders, as Brackman changes to accommodate just seventh and eighth grades.
Robert Hansson, who has two children in the district, shared his feelings about the change. “Through my twenty plus years in the service, I trusted those appointed or voted for, to do what was best for us,” Hansson said. “When I heard how bad this was going to be for us, I wanted to say no- that the Board of Education knows what they are doing.”
At the very least, Hansson expected the professionals in charge to show evidence of how grade banding worked. When the administrative team presented only one other district, Hansson said he did some research on his own. He found twenty places where he said the concept failed.
Many of the other parents who spoke were educators themselves. Some shared studies. Others questioned numbers and operational logistics.
George Fedorczyk has been involved in discussions and committees regarding the district’s restructuring since it was first announced. He felt that the administration failed to vet the three options equally, by only emphasized the grade banding.
Addressing parents in the room, Fedorczyk implored upon them to get behind the plan even if they weren’t for it. “If we as parents don’t get behind it, our children are going to fail,” he said. “That just can’t happen.”
Social media became a target of the discussion as well. Some parents expressed disappointment about a Facebook post, which TAPintoBarnegat/Waretown subsequently published as a Letter to the Editor. Although Michael Hickey did not write the letter in his capacity as board president, some found it inappropriate.
BEA representative William “Chip” Junker blasted against information coming from social media. “I have begged and begged my teachers to stay off Facebook,” Junker said.
Junker read from a Facebook post authored by former Board of Education member Rafael Adorno regarding the teachers’ contract. He expressed outrage at the content and its inaccuracy.
“As far as people posting things with a spin, that hurts my members, my staff, and my students,” said Junker. “If you’re going to post things, post things that are truthful.”
Although some of those who spoke during the public session asked questions, neither the board president nor Latwis answered them. In prior meetings, concerns were addressed as they came up.
“At the last meeting, we tried to limit everyone’s time to three minutes,” explained Hickey. “I received requests to return it to five minutes, which left no time for additional discussion.”
When the public comments portion of the meeting concluded, board members voted. The three votes in opposition came from Sean O’Brien, Richard Quelch, and Robert Sawicki. They are the newest board members and ran together as “A New Voice for Barnegat.”
Before voting in favor of the grade banding, Doreen Continanza gave a statement. “I had a lot of questions before making this decision,” she said. “I met with Dr. Latwis, our board president, and other board members. After going through everything, I feel the banding is a good thing.”
Reached after the meeting, Quelch expressed his disappointment. “As a board member and part of this community, all I ever wanted was what was best for everyone,” he shared. My feelings still stand that we could have dug deeper to meet everyone’s needs.”
Quelch also said that it broke his heart to hear highly educated people address concerns that were never answered. Both he and O’Brien said they plan to hold everyone accountable for the new plan.
Next year, the board president has four children who will be in four separate schools. He said that he relied on the unanimous recommendations of the administrative team in voting in favor of the grade banding model.
“I want my children and your children to be on their grade level,” said Hickey. “And, I also represent the entire population of Barnegat, not just the younger school parents.”
Meanwhile, Latwis has already started the process of getting the plan in motion. Parents will receive a letter regarding the changes at some time today. Teachers and staff will be asked to state their preferences concerning school locations. Some may elect to apply for newly created positions.
“Principals in each of the buildings are going into each of the classrooms to speak with the students,” Latwis said. “They’ll be soliciting feedback so that the kids feel they are part of the process.”
Latwis emphasized that the emphasis will be on keeping the focus on instruction throughout the district. Even after teachers learn of their new assignments, they will not pack up their classrooms until the current school year ends.
“We will also be releasing a guidance document regarding the process,” said Latwis. “It will contain a timeline and act as a valuable resource.”
Acknowledging that the restructuring has created a polarized atmosphere, Latwis said he hoped moving forward that everyone could share in the vision for students and staff. “We want to be in the best possible position for success,” he said.