BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ -- Favorable construction bids on a planned two-story addition on Ridge High School were received Nov. 14 by the Bernards Township Board of Education.

Now, in the light of demographic estimates that show a declining high school population for the next five years, at least, the board must decide whether it needs more than an enhanced kitchen to accomplish its aim of revising the school-day schedule.

The good news is that the lowest of 14 bids came in at the area of $5.2 million, including “soft” costs of legal, architectural and other such costs. That’s well below the $7 million estimate.

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The bids were for kitchen production space with four classrooms and smaller room on a second floor.

The board has 60 days to accept bids, so it must decide whether it can drop the second floor of classroom space to be able to switch to a “rotating drop” schedule of fewer, but longer, class periods in a day.

Such a revised schedule would require a common lunch period for the entire school. Now, about 2,000 students and staff eat lunch over many class periods spanning from about 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The board must consider new demographic estimates that show a declining high school population at least through 2023-24. As of October, the high school population was 1,804; it trends downward to a projected 1,783 next year and eventually to 1,608 in the 2024-25 school year. The functional capacity of Ridge High is 1,776.

Other options are to build a one-story larger café or try to add equipment and reconfigure present kitchen space to accommodate needs. The costs for either option are unknown.

Superintendent Nick Markarian said he would have a better sense of what will happen after the Dec. 4 finance committee meeting. The topic will likely be on the Dec. 16 public meeting agenda, he said.

If the decision is to forego a second-floor of classrooms, it would mean redesign and another round of bidding. That would likely mean construction wouldn’t start this summer and would likely push the planned opening date beyond the start of the 2021-22 school year, as had been projected.

If the decision is to enlarge and/or renovate the existing kitchen, the school would hope to have it ready for September 2021, Markarian said after the meeting.

Another factor is how much food production is needed. The school could bring in more free-standing food kiosks and more vending machines. A somewhat-dated survey of how students used the café showed that only about one in five responding students bought a full meal that would require the most work to produce, with other students bringing their lunch or opting for a drink, or a snack, Business Administrator Rod McLaughlin said at the meeting.

Markarian said he was planning to go to Chatham and Watchung Hills – two schools with a rotating drop schedule -- to see how they handled lunch logistics.