MIDDLETOWN, NJ: Middletown parents and community members got to learn more information about the issues that they considered to be the most important for the upcoming strategic planning cycle during the Dec. 11th Strategic Planning Forum at Middletown High School North.

The forum was the third such forum in the strategic planning process, which began last spring when Middletown’s Board of Education chose consulting firm Schoolhouse Strategies, led by Lynne Strickland, and David Hespe (New Jersey’s former Education Commissioner), to lead the process. 

The first forum was in October, and had three sessions in which the overall strategic planning process was discussed; while the second forum was held last month and entailed discussion of the overall mission, values and vision of the school district for the 2020 – 2025 planning cycle. In addition, Middletown community members got to participate in an online survey, which can be found on the Middletown Township Public Schools’ strategic planning webpage.

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The forum began with Middletown Township Board of Education President Pamela Rogers addressing a rumor that the Board was supposedly going to consolidate schools by reducing the number of grade levels and increasing the number of students per grade level in each school, a practice called grade banding, and that this was a done deal. “I’m here to tell you right now that there is no done deal,” she said. “We’re simply in the information gathering process.”

Rogers also said that she was happy about the grassroots participation for the strategic planning process, as this allows for plenty community input on where the school district should go in the future.

“It’s a chance for you to let us know what we’re doing well, and what we have to work towards doing better,” Rogers said. 

Rogers also said that public participation in this strategic planning cycle is important, because of the fact that Middletown Public Schools will be losing more than $6 million annually in state aid over the next five years, and because there are major issues with unequal class sizes throughout the school district. 

“We know that we need to act, and that we need to act through the strategic plan,” she said. 

Robin Stella, the Board of Ed’s Vice-President, said the strategic planning process will ensure that any solution to these types of challenges will keep the community’s best interests in mind but will also take time. 

“We need to be patient with the process and follow it through,” she said. “We want to do this right.”

Following this, David Hespe of Schoolhouse Strategies began his talk, during which he mentioned that at least 100 people turned out at every one of the forums so far, and that almost 3,000 people participated in the survey. 

“We’re getting all of that information we want,” he said. “This is good. The more informed you are, the better input we get, which means the more we can come into alignment with what you want.”

Lynne Strickland of Schoolhouse strategies said the survey results revealed that the most important issues for the Middletown community were class sizes, incorporating technology into the learning process, and improved support for special education students. 

Next, Amy Gallagher, Middletown Public School district’s Business Administrator, talked about the school district’s expected financial position given the upcoming state aid cuts, as well as the major projects that the district has done over the past five years.

Mary Ellen Walker, the district’s Assistant Superintendent for Student Services, then discussed school enrollment numbers, and explained that school enrollment has declined by about 8 percent in recent years.

“That’s pretty significant,” Walker said. 

Michele Tiedemann, the district’s special education director, said that Middletown Public Schools’ special ed programs have a very good reputation for providing the attention and support that special education students need in order to succeed. 

“We often get requests from other school districts who have heard of our programs,” Tiedermann said. “They send us records (of special ed students), we see if it’s a good fit, and they pay tuition to come into Middletown.”

After this came the public comment section, in which one mother of a Lincroft Elementary School student said that she was very frustrated by the major increase in class sizes there, adding that a solution to that issue was urgent and personal for her. 

“I’m going to open houses in private schools (for my child) next month, and I don’t want to do that,” the mom said. “I want to know that class size isn’t three years down the road. I would love to hear that (a solution for) class size is immediate”. 

Following this, a former teacher asked whether the school district could simply raise more property tax money on its own, since according to a state local funding capacity formula, it could in theory afford that. 

When Gallagher said this would require approval by the County Executive Superintendent, as well as a referendum, and even then, property tax increased exceeding 2 percent annually could only be implemented in certain circumstances – the former teacher then wondered whether the community was willing to pay what it takes to finance the kind of programs it says it wants for the kids. 

“That’s what we all need to think about,” he said. 

Lastly, when the District Superintendent William O’ George said that the grade banding rumor was based on an informal forum held with Middletown’s teaching staff, in which one of them asked about grade banding being a theoretically possible idea to equalize school class sizes throughout the district – but that it was not intended to be a formal proposal to be decided upon right away. 

“It was never suggested that that was the solution, because there were too many inputs that would have had to come first,” George said. “It was nothing more than an idea that could be considered.”