BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. — The Board of Education will hold its second Town Hall on Zoom at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 22, on the planned switch to Universal Full Day Kindergarten (FDK) and restructuring of the district into one Pre-K-2, one K-2 and two grades 3-5 schools. Last week almost 200 people attended the first Zoom Town Hall on the topic. When the meeting ended, almost three hours later, more than 100 people were still on the call.  The complete video of the Town Hall can be found here on YouTube.

Board President Doug Reinstein, speaking for the board, and Superintendent of Schools Melissa Varley, listened to and responded to scores of comments and questions from 31 different people. Some thanked the board for its hard work and supported the administration. Many of the others were fact finding, others asked for at least one other scenario to be on the survey, and some dismissed the current plan as inappropriate for this time.

Prior to the meeting, the district posted nine pages of answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” which can be accessed on the website here.

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The district has sent a survey to  “stakeholders,” incoming registered families, and families with children already in grades PK-4, on whether they prefer the realignment to happen in September 2021, or to have the transition take place over the next two academic years. The survey closes at 6 p.m. on April 25, and the superintendent will make a recommendation based on whether 55 percent or more of the families prefer one scenario. The survey results are not binding. The one certainty is the district will offer FDK in September 2021 and going forward.

There is a statement from Director of Special Education Michele Gardner on the impact of realigning the district on the website. It concludes: “The provision of special education, related services and specialized support will continue, regardless of the structuring of the schools - however, restructuring the schools allows Special Services to provide its supports and services in a way that is more effective and efficient.”

The first member of the audience to speak, Laura Kapinski said she wanted to “formally request Scenario 3 be added to the survey.” Scenario 3 would have Mary Kay McMillin (MKM) have only Pre-K and Kindergarten classes and the three other elementary grades becoming grade 1-5 schools, with students in the Murray Hill area moving to Woodruff. That could be done in September 2021. She said she understood the priorities for the district are: Space for FDK; Resolving inequalities at elementary schools; and a plan with the least impact on the school population. “Scenario 3 meets all those goals,” and gives everyone a “sense of normalcy” and time to properly evaluate whether the realignment is necessary.

She asked Reinstein if the board is not going to allow that scenario to be on the survey, “What is the purpose of tonight’s meeting?” She also said “I would like to ask all board members to speak up.”

Reinstein responded, “the purpose of  tonight’s meeting is to allow residents to ask questions, and for us to provide answers, and people to provide feedback, adding her request was “noted.” As for board members being asked to speak up, “We will not poll the board on any questions from the public. Our policy is no member can speak on behalf of the board … which is why the questions are directed to me.”

Michael Soffer sought clarity on a benefit of the change, “If I have a Kindergartner who will start, they will go to school with the same kids from K-2 and 3-5? Is that true? 

Reinstein confirmed the students will be in the same cohort and agreed it was a benefit to have half the town together.

Jeff Germansky said he thought Scenario 3 should be on the survey, “it appears to be very reasonable,” and pointed out that in Scenario 5, kids who are now in Pre- K at MKM from the Woodruff district would be in Woodruff for K, next year, and possibly change schools again, before moving into a 3-5 school, although this may be a misinterpretation of the changes, the chart listing the scenarios is not clear.    

Reinstein agreed that Scenario 3 does move fewer students, only the Murray Hill neighborhood, which will move from Hughes to Woodruff. However, “Scenario 3 is not developmentally appropriate,” said Reinstein. 

Sai Bhargavi said she did not believe Reinstein answered the first question on why Scenario 3 could not be added to the survey.”If parents cannot vote on scenarios 1,2 or 3, why were they presented on April 8?”  She also pointed out there have been no details on the cost implications of the various scenarios, what modifications need to be made, how many teachers need to be hired, and more. She also asked for data to support the idea that Scenario 3 is not developmentally appropriate.

Reinstein again said “Scenario 3 will not be on the survey when it goes out tomorrow.” The other scenarios were included to “show what we considered,” he said. As for total costs, the capital cost for four bathrooms to be built at Woodruff will be $500,000 and the board has allocated $245,000 for new teacher’s salaries and benefits, Reinstein said. There would be other costs with Scenario 3, but “we will not be providing specific breakdowns,” he said. 

Dipti Khanna said she wanted “a better understanding of the data” behind the decision to promote Scenarios 4 and 5. 

Dr. Varley pointed to Chatham, Florham Park and Sparta with similar grade banding. New Providence is “packed” and can’t afford to add FDK. “We have the ability to add FDK by moving 20 percent of the students around … We can give this to the community and students as a foundation of learning.”

Khanna persisted, asking to see data that this works.

Dr. Varley referred her to “the literature we posted.” Scenarios 4 and 5 allows“early childhood teachers to specialize and focus on children.” She noted districts already “specialize in grades 9-12 and 6-8 grades,” and predicted “academic achievement will increase.”

Michael Leblond said he was “troubled by the rush” and asked why Dr. Varley said the planning process did not require public input … and that the public did not have expertise. He asked, “Where did that come from ...there’s plenty of expertise in town.”

Dr. Varley replied that district administrators are hired to do what is best for all 2,500 students and future students. “It is left up to us to make the decisions … we are objective … we will make the decision,” she said.

Liz Kane, a parent in the district, said she appreciated Dr. Varley’s expertise. She urged the district to re-think the busing. “Two miles is too long for any students” to walk to school. 

John Migueis said he thought the idea that “stakeholders should not be involved is unique.” He said the proposed realignment “does not feel like an objective piece of work” and finds it disturbing that Dr. Varley believes that “parents should not have a say or be at the table on a decision that will affect their children.” The way these decisions are being made “Is dividing the community … it doesn’t have to be that hard,” he said.

Erin Sidie asked if “the feedback heard tonight will impact your decision?” 

Reinstein said since the initial presentation of the realignment, he and Dr. Varley have been talking to people who are giving them feedback. He said, “I take feedback very seriously … but that doesn’t mean the board will act in a specific way,” nor does it mean people giving feedback are not being heard.

Todd Najarian asked why there are only 43 schools in the state that are 3-5 schools. “Why is it so important we follow what only 43 schools” are doing, he asked.He urged the board to find a way for FDK and for redistricting to be held off for two to three years, to “see the impact of new housing” on the district. He was concerned about the mental health of the young children and said especially after a pandemic, the board should have listened to the community and not made a rushed decision.

Township Council President Jeanne Kingsley, who had children in school when MKM was created, has been through the anxiety associated with change and said she supported the proposed redistricting and FDK play. “No matter which school your child is going to ...change is always hard. Trust the administration.”

The questions and comments continued for another almost 90 minutes.

Supporters of the redistricting applauded the board, others continued to find flaws in the plan.

As the meeting drew to a close, Reinstein said, Woodruff is being changed from its current structure, and it will continue to be a great school, a K-2 school, and the other schools will be great in their future model.”

He reminded those still on the call that the feedback is “not just what you listen to -- there are other forms of feedback that come our way.

The next Town Hall will be on Zoom Thursday, April 22, at 7:30 p.m. The Zoom link is available on the website, here

The Board of Education will announce its decision at its next regular meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 29.

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