MIDDLETOWN, NJ: Middletown parents, especially those from the Port Monmouth area, had a lot to say about possible plans to close the local elementary school there, and said it with a great deal of passion, during the Feb 26th Middletown Township Board of Education meeting at Middletown High School North.

The meeting, which took place at the school’s Auditorium to accommodate its unusually large audience, had as its main feature a discussion of some key details about the proposed school closure, followed by a special public comment portion in which many parents expressed strong feelings against the proposal. 

The discussion was opened by Tom Olausen, principal of Thorne Middle School, in which he said he was not thrilled by the prospect of Port Monmouth Elementary School closing, but also said that hard choices have to be made.

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“We as administrators have to deal with reality, and no solution is perfect,” he said. “We are charged with that juggling act of making very difficult choices.”

Afterward, Middletown Township’s Public School District’s Superintendent William O. George explained that the way the Port Monmouth Elementary School closure would work if it were to happen was that the Port Monmouth students would be absorbed by New Monmouth Elementary School; in other words, essentially consolidating those two schools into one larger school.  

Superintendent George later explained that New Monmouth Elementary School would be up for this task, since the preschool program students would be reassigned to different schools, and because of construction work done there in 2013 that added more classroom space. 

Nonetheless, the Superintendent said the proposed school closure, if a final decision was made to do that, would not be a decision taken lightly.   

“We’re not here because we want to be, we’re here because we have to be (here),” he said, adding that he personally visited and addressed students at the school to explain the plans, and valued what the students had to say about the subject.

Mary Ellen Walker, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Student Activities and Services, said one of the reasons a decision was made to propose the closure of Port Monmouth Elementary School was that the district administration felt that this would be the least disruptive option for the overall school district, since Port Monmouth had the smallest student population.

“We looked at some of the (other) smaller and the older (elementary) schools – but no other schools would be able to accomplish moving the students without re-districting,” Walker said. “They would end up in schools that were not following through to their chosen middle and high school.”

During these presentations, many members of the audience complained about the plans to shut down Port Monmouth Elementary School, with one person demanding that the Superintendent apologize. 

Following the presentation, numerous Port Monmouth parents came forward to express their worries about their kids being negatively impacted by these plans, as well as their strong opposition to the idea of closing their local neighborhood school.

One such parent was Jessica Berdiglione, who suggested that the district should be finding money to keep Port Monmouth Elementary school open rather than planning to close it down – saying that there were line items that the school district could have been held off on, such as spending $50,000 for blind replacements. 

She also said that the plans to close Port Monmouth School might make the kids there feel like factory pieces being moved around.

“You’re looking at them like numbers at a processing line in your factory,” she said. 

In addition, she said the school district couldn’t even guarantee that this would be the last school closure. 

“If you allow the district to close one school, what’s going to happen the following year?,” she said.

Another parent to speak was Michele Pinzer, who said that she not only strongly objected to not only closing the school, but also to Superintendent George announcing this directly to the students. 

“If you have something to say, speak to us parents,” Pinzer said.  “Do not speak to my child, you do not have my permission.”

Mary Landers, another Port Monmouth Elementary School parent, said she felt that the idea of Superintendent George saying he values the voices of the school’s kids as part of the democratic process was disingenuous of him, since he’s considering closing that very school. 

“They should be learning about this process inside the walls of that building you want to close,” she said. 

The comment period also featured a fifth-grade student from Port Monmouth Elementary School asking that the school not be shut down, because that’s where several generations of his family went to school. 

“It’s unfair that every kid under fifth grade (who now goes to Port Monmouth Elementary School) can’t graduate (from there anymore),” he said.

After this came the other agenda items; with a few examples being the district IT network administrator David Siwiak talking about installing a new AI engine that would better detect the context of seemingly suspicious key words or phrases written on network devices; District Business Administrator Amy Doherty discussing a re-financing of some of the district’s long-term debt, and Board member Leonora Caminiti asking about how the district plans to handle a potential long-term school closure if the coronavirus forces that to happen.

During these discussions, Board member Joan Minnues said she was very disappointed about the potential plans to close the school, especially about the way these plans were first brought about, since this would break the trust of the community for the district administration. 

“No way did I ever think that the day after the strategic planning or the night of that we were going to be addressing closing a school,” she said.   “I think we’re doing a big disservice (to the community with these plans).”