BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ -- The Bernards Township Board of Education has pulled the plug on a planned two-story addition to Ridge High School.

The school board has determined that it could adapt its school-day schedule by using existing classrooms, but expanding and modernizing kitchen facilities. The school is looking to make the change starting September 2021.

That could mean an originally estimated $7 million project could be accomplished by a $2.9 million kitchen expansion and creative scheduling for classes.

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New demographic estimates that show a declining high school population for the next five years, at least, seems to have driven the change.

Construction bids for kitchen production space with four classrooms and smaller room on a second floor were received Nov. 14.

The lowest of 14 bids came in around $5.2 million, including “soft” costs (legal, architectural, fees). The board faced a deadline of 60 days to accept bids, so it voted Monday night, Dec. 16, to reject them.

The school wants to switch to a “rotating drop” schedule of fewer, but longer, class periods in a day. Such a revised schedule would require one 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.

At the Nov. 25 meeting, the board heard demographer Richard Grip estimate 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, 1,772 in 2021-22 and to 1,608 in the 2024-25 school year, Grip said.

The board heard administrators Monday describe how the high school could adapt to a rotating drop schedule with the facilities it has. It might be tight in the first school year of 2021-22, but grow easier as the student population declines.

Essentially, the school wants to switch to an eight-period day of an estimated 55-60 minutes per class. Right now, the school has nine periods of 42 minutes each. Students would have class in each subject in four of any five days.

Superintendent Nick Markarian said the kitchen would be gutted and perhaps expanded by annexing an adjacent all-purpose workroom. Thirty-year-old kitchen equipment – stoves, ovens, refrigerators, etc. – would be replaced.

The board will now have to authorize the design and specifications of the renovated kitchen. The intent is for the work to be completed over a five-month time frame that would mean shutting down the kitchen for the last two months of the 2020-21 school year.

Cafeteria seating space would not increase. Instead the school would look to other rooms and gyms as space for students to eat lunch.

The school also estimates it could save $119,000 per year in kitchen staffing salaries because of the concentrated overall lunch time.

Two administrators described Monday how rooms could be used to adjust to the rotating drop schedule, using this year’s schedule for the exercise. Assistant Superintendent Kristin Fox and Stephanie Smith, director of school counseling, said classes could be accommodated by using a computer lab for other subjects, adapting a curriculum supervisors’ office, scheduling AP labs around study halls and using a lecture hall.

As enrollment declines, some of those “tradeoffs” could be brought back or rooms used for other purposes, Fox said.