BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District appears to be in good shape and moving forward, with a greater emphasis to be placed on communication in the future, according to Superintendent of Schools Russell Lazovick.

Lazovick, now in his fourth year in Bridgewater-Raritan, delivered his yearly “State of the District” address Sept. 9 at Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School.

“This is our annual September party,” he said, to an audience of just over 50 individuals, mostly parents of students.

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He gave a review of what had occurred before, and what was to come, which he called “exciting” and which has also taken “a lot of work.” He also mentioned the district’s mission statement of “We Will Teach Them All, One and All,” and added that “this is why we are here.”

Lazovick began by stating that New Jersey had tied perennial frontrunner Massachusetts at the top of the rankings for states that provide the best education. He added that Bridgewater-Raritan High School is one of the largest and best high schools in the Garden State, but that the situation isn't necessarily the same for every student in every area of the district, which he said has been the focus of the past three years – to meet their educational needs, and to also bring them to academic proficiency.

Lazovick elaborated that meeting those needs necessitates stripping down and rebuilding the district’s academic and support programs.

“To be the best, you have to keep getting better,” he said.

He also spoke of the extracurricular activities that the district offers, including athletics, community service, competitions such as robotics and forensics, and the performing arts, as well as the high levels of success that each have enjoyed.

“We’re greatly proud of those things,” said Lazovick.

He also spoke of several key areas regarding the district, including finances, health and wellness and safety.

Lazovick said the district is within the state cap, and that the budget, about $161.3 million for the 2019-2020 school year, has also been dramatically transformed. He also said the district is incredibly competitive in both the state and the county for its costs per student.

A total of about $143.9 million of this year’s budget comes from the local tax levy, with nearly $10.6 million in addition allotted from the state and about $6.8 million from other sources. The district also stands to receive another $2 million in state aid, thanks to the governor.

Concerning the budget breakdown, Lazovick said that 57 percent goes to salaries, 18.9 percent to benefits and 23.5 percent to operations and everything else. He also said that benefits are growing at an “incredibly excessive rate,” and will surpass operations in the next few years. He added that there have also been successes regarding the budget, most notably the establishment of permanent allocations, or set figures in the budget from year to year, for curriculum, facilities and technology.

Curriculum will be fully funded (100 percent) at $1.5 million, with facilities funded at 85 percent at $3.8 million and technology funded at 107 percent at $1.4 million. He said that the technology allocation is “another massive win,” with a five-to-seven-year long-range technology plan to replace every piece of technology in the district, with equivalent or upgraded pieces.

“It allows us to stay current,” said Lazovick.

He also mentioned that the district has unveiled a new and updated website at www.brrsd.org, and new communications capabilities through Powerschool that include student information.

There is also STAR (Students Taking Active Roles), which has been worked on for two years, to establish more of a 1:1 teacher-student ratio in district classrooms, including the additional 7 percent out of the 107 percent allocated for technology. The plan is to expand the program to both the middle and high schools, incrementally, in the coming years.

A long-range plan has also been developed for facilities, including provisions for infrastructure, classroom interiors, paving and roofing, with repairs and the like not being accomplished piecemeal anymore.

“We do plan for those things,” said Lazovick, including instances that may pop up from time to time. “There have been a lot of victories the last three years, but there’s still a ways to go.”

He said that the district’s strategic plan has been dissected in recent months, with the focus put on what is best for the district’s students. That approach includes both health and wellness, and also safety, which Lazovick said “directly impacts one another.”

Health and wellness includes homework, academic integrity and school starting times.

Regarding acceptable amounts of homework, Lazovick pointed out that the board of education has been working “a long time,” and has also accepted public feedback to assist its work on changing the homework policy, including “homework free” periods during breaks of four days or more in the school schedule, for Christmas and other holidays. Maximum allowable amounts of homework have also been recommended, and the impact of homework as a whole has also been examined, to see where it fits into student and family lives.

“That conversation has to happen,” said Lazovick, of working toward that goal.

He also cited increased communication, and added that this will be a “year of communication” from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“I’m asking you to be a part of that conversation,” said Lazovick to the assembled public.

Lazovick stated that academic integrity also needs to be addressed, somewhat surprisingly, as many students are “making poor choices,” as he put it. They aren’t mastering skills and knowledge, even though there is a system in place to provide them with academic support, with the issue of integrity beginning as early as third or fourth grade.

He also spoke of changing classroom conditions to prevent opportunities for cheating, and told the audience its help would be required to give students “every opportunity to succeed.”

Lazovick said that the automatic consequences for defying academic integrity will not immediately be punitive in nature, unless students keep making the aforementioned wrong choices, although a change is necessary.

“It’s being taken too lightly,” said the superintendent of cheating. “We will be holding the line moving forward.”

Concerning the long-debated issue of earlier school starting times, Lazovick related that surveys had been sent out regarding the matter, which resulted in feedback from 97 percent of district staff, 80 percent of students and over 40 percent of parents.

“Those are massive numbers,” he said.

He also said that changing school starting times would impact other areas, such as the budget, facilities and transportation, and that the school board is looking to make a decision on the matter by the end of 2019, although no final decision has yet been reached. Roundtables have been held with other school districts in Somerset County to discuss altered start times, and the district has also examined medical and educational evidence for a potential change.

“We have the opportunity to look at options,” said Lazovick.

The superintendent next turned to the issue of safety, which he said encompasses “a huge amount of what we do,” including procedures and training, to help students make the best decisions they can for their own health and wellness. Safety drills and their execution are also changing in the district, and a public presentation on safety is scheduled for Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wade Administration Building, on Newmans Lane.

Lazovick again brought up the notion of communication, this time in regards to safety, with the district website to be utilized as one safety tool. Another is School Messenger, which will be used to convey information in emergencies, with public updates to also be posted to Facebook once a potential situation is addressed and confirmed by district administrators.

The School Messenger system will also be used as the single system for district staff to communicate with one another, especially in emergencies, such as if students from one school have to be temporarily transferred to another building, instead of outdated methods such as walkie-talkies.

“It’s changing this year,” said Lazovick, who explained that transmitters will be installed in each school building. “We’ve made significant investment with the permanent (technology) allocation.”

Safety training will also be provided to everyone working in the district, not just certain individuals.

“It makes us even more prepared,” said Lazovick.

Other changes will be coming regarding access to district facilities, including vehicular access to school buildings.

“Unfortunately, we live at a time when schools have become targets,” said Lazovick.

The district will work with school safety officers, to make sure the buildings are safe, but to also maintain them as places of learning.

All district staff are now required to carry identification cards on lanyards, a system that will be expanded to upper-level students in the district, particularly high schoolers, with facility access permitted in specified areas.

“It designates you as part of the community,” said Lazovick of the lanyards.

Full coverage of school grounds is to be provided by security cameras and wi-fi systems in a comprehensive effort, including initiating coverage in areas that may currently lack it.

Making all this possible, according to Lazovick, is people. He said he understands that different people will have different opinions, but that the perspective is again focused on what is best for the district’s students.

“It’s critical to approach things that way,” he said.

He again mentioned the district’s motto, and said that the “we” it specifies is everyone in the Bridgewater-Raritan area,

“There’s some exciting stuff for 2019-20,” he concluded.

Lazovick’s presentation, including a question-and-answer period, was streamed live, and is now available on the district website.