MIDDLETOWN, NJ: Members of the Middletown Township Public School District community had the chance to learn about the prediction of future student enrollment for the next 5-10 years, during the Middletown Township Board of Education’s most recent meeting, held virtually over Zoom on Sept. 23rd.

These future student enrollment predictions, based on a study presented to the Board by two representatives of the Milone & MacBroom demographic consulting firm (which specializes in school building capacity use planning), are a key step toward implementing the district’s goals for the 2020-2025 strategic planning cycle.

The Board meeting also featured the mentioning of a series of educational program grants for two elementary schools, modifications to school activities and operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, curriculum updates; and a back-and-forth between Board members and school district administrative staff members about whether and how to resume in-person Board meetings, as well as about possible repurposing plans for the building once home to the recently closed Port Monmouth Elementary School.

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The meeting; however, began with the two Milone & MacBroom representatives; Rebecca Augur and Mike Zuba, presenting the findings of their study on future student enrollments in the school district over the next 5-10 years.  

The study found that there was a 2 percent population decrease in Middletown Township from about 77,500 people in 2010 to slightly under 76,000 people in 2018.  The study also found that the bulk of the decreases occurred in the Lincroft and New Monmouth/Port Monmouth Elementary School zones, which were largely balanced out by either stable populations or population increases throughout the rest of Middletown.

“The population change has not been evenly spread throughout the community,” Augur said.

The study also found that the population decreases mostly for the middle-aged adult and school aged children, but also increases for the young adult and senior citizen population groups.

“You still have the general profile of a family oriented community,” Augur said, adding that there was a rising birthrate in Middletown from 2016 to 2018. “That’s just something to be aware of in your current projections.”

In addition, the study found that the number of annual home sales rose dramatically from about 600 homes in 2011 to about 1400 homes in 2017; with steady increases continuing into the present, and now home sales are at an all-time high of approaching 1,500 per year.

“It’s a really remarkable trend,” Augur said.

Furthermore, Augur said the study projected that there will be an increase of about 600 families living in Middletown over the next 5 years, with almost 90 percent of those being because of two upcoming developments, one in the Fairview Elementary School zone, and the other in the Middletown Village Elementary School Zone.

Mike Zuba then got into the study’s methodology, saying that its projections are based on the Cohort Survival Methodology, meaning that past data is the main basis for making future projections in communities with either stable or slowly but steadily changing populations.

“It’s really kind of the gold standard for (these kind of studies),” Zuba said.

Zuba also said the projections included three enrollment models; with those being a high, medium, and low model. The projections also assume that the private and out of school zone enrollments are stable, that unemployment and housing sales and development predictions pan out as predicted, and that boundaries for each elementary school zone remains the same over the next five years.

In addition, Zuba said that the school district population will decrease over the next five years and then rebound slightly in the following 5 years, with the largest rebound being in the elementary schools, followed by the middle schools; with the high schools having the largest upcoming decreases before bottoming out.

Zuba said his firm looked forward to discussing with each school on how to best use their spaces given their projected enrollment numbers in the coming years.

“We look forward to having some conversations with the (individual school) building leadership(s) as time permits,” he said.

When Board member Joan Minnues asked about the margin of error for these projections, Zuba said it was about 1 percent, but that this was a safe margin because of the way the projections were made

“For our methodology, where we produce a high, medium, and low model, we are hedging bets on some of those long-term uncertainties within these communities,” Zuba said.

Following the presentation, Assistant Superintendent Michele Tiedemann announced that the two of the district’s elementary schools will receive grants to make their educational programs more inclusive of special needs students, one in Harmony’s preschool grades and another for Leonardo’s Grades 1 through 5.   Middletown’s School district is the only one in the state awarded both types of grants, Tiedemann said.

“We’re really happy about that,” she said.

Next, Board Secretary and District Business Administrator Amy Doherty announced that the Port Monmouth School building is now in the process of obtaining licensing to be potentially repurposed as a day-care center to be used by the YMCA.

Doherty also announced that the NJ State Dept. of Agriculture has granted the school district a special waiver allowing all students, regardless of income, to receive free meals, which for virtual learning students would be distributed from Ocean Ave Elementary School and each of the two High Schools on Mondays and Thursdays.

Board member Leonora Caminiti said she was glad that such a program is now currently available.

“I think it’s a win-win,” she said.

Robin Stella then announced the district was implementing new courses to the curriculum, including a specialized Holocaust and Genocide Studies course for high school students wishing to earn college credit, an Abnormal Psychology course for the same purpose, and training teachers to teach how people identifying as LGBTQ+  have contributed to U.S. History and culture.

After this, District Administrator Patrick Rinella announced that there would be a limit of 500 tickets (per game) available for outdoor fall sports competitions, with 100 of them reserved for the away team, 2 tickets reserved for the guests of each participant of these sports, and about 100 tickets being left over for raffling off to students.  Indoor sport competitions for the fall season are canceled altogether, he said.

Next came a public comment section, in which local community member Vera Piasecki first thanked the Board for securing the special education inclusion grants for elementary schools, but also expressed concern as to whether the school district would be able to fully accomplish the goal of increased inclusion for special needs children without guaranteeing that they will be able to go to the same elementary, middle, and high schools as their general education peers as they progress through all the grade levels.

“We really need to try and make sure they these kids continue to move with their community,” Piasecki said.

Next, District Staff member Chris Rotolo explained that he and other school district officials worked out a plan in which in case the Board of Education decides to meet again, they would have to be seated in a horseshoe like arrangement, the Zoom platform will still be used, and that they would all be having laptops with headphones on to reduce echoing; as well as being socially distanced and wearing masks, and making accommodations for those who can’t meet in person.

Afterward, Lester Taylor, the Board’s Attorney, said that if in-person meetings resume, then only a maximum of 25 people can attend, since the 25 percent room capacity rule for general indoor gathering applies comes with a hard cap of 25 people attending such meetings regardless of the room’s actual capacity.  He also said that there are larger capacity limits for weddings, funerals, religious services, and political gatherings, but that he’d have to find out if government meeting qualify for such exceptions as well.

 The Board members agreed that they would like to try out in-person meetings eventually once the details of how COVID-19 safety protocols would be implemented are ironed out, but no definite date for resuming such meetings has been set yet.

Next, the new Superintendent, Mary Ellen Walker, who was previously an Assistant Superintendent, thanked everyone for their role in helping make the transition to a gradual phased re-opening of the school buildings run smoothly.

“I just want to thank everybody in the school community for such a great opening week,” Walker said. “It was so great to see our students come into the building. You can tell they were smiling underneath their masks, it was great.”

Lastly, Board member Joan Minnues expressed concerns about the fact that Port Monmouth School building’s repurposing was not announced until after it was well underway, and also expressed disappointment that the Board was not informed or consulted beforehand.

“We should not have to wait until Friday updates to hear about these things,” Minnues said. “We (as a Board) are supposed to know what’s going on in our own district. I’m just talking about (common) courtesty.”