In the last townhall meeting hosted by the Board of Education on April 22nd 2021, 21 out of the 27 people who spoke out, were not supportive of the reconfiguration of schools as the only way to implement Full Day Kindergarten and urged the Superintendent and Board to explore other options to achieve the common goal of the community to provide full day kindergarten.
I am writing to shed some light on the reasons why many are voicing their concerns about the hasty process to redistricting and reconfiguration of our schools.
Many parents have been reaching out to our Superintendent Dr.Varley and the Board of Education to get additional data on scenarios 3,4 and 5 across many parameters, including cost of construction, increased cost of hiring teachers, staff, aides, specialists, class sizes, how much capacity are they building in each scenario to prepare for the incremental students coming from the new apartments/condo developments all over town, traffic analysis... and we can tell you that they have not been able to share an objective side by side comparison of scenarios 3,4 and 5.
Our superintendent informed Parents and residents over three meetings starting from 8th April 2021 that options 1-5 under the “reimagining our schools” plan were the result of “diligent” research, only to find out that it was backed up by one study in Alaska conducted almost 20 years ago and not by extensive published or peer reviewed research.
In all the public meetings so far, the Superintendent and Board president have given the impression that this is a fully baked plan while in reality they do not have the detailed plans that should have been in place for a proposal that they want to implement in September 2021.
There are many unanswered questions and a lot of unknowns after TWO Town Halls and the original presentation on 8th April 2021.
LACK OF EMPIRICAL DATA & OBJECTIVE EVALUATION:
- Dr. Varley is yet to respond quantitatively to the question of how the 2002 H.S. Norwood Study from Alaska’s Kenai peninsula is relevant to be replicated in Berkeley Heights? How is a 19yr old study with a significantly different district size even remotely comparable or relevant to Berkeley Heights?
- Multiple parents have requested for the scoring process to understand how each scenario was evaluated and why the Superintendent eliminated scenario 3. However, each response to the request has been that no process or evaluation process was leveraged other than "Scenario 4 is the most developmentally appropriate" option.
- The recommended K-2,3-5 model has only been backed up by unnamed expert opinions and without any contradictory point of view.
- The Board president nor the Superintendent have been able to quantify the reason why Berkeley Heights should move away from a tried and tested model followed by most of the top-rated schools districts in the country.
FIDUCIARY DUTY TO THE RESIDENTS OF BERKELEY HEIGHTS:
As elected officials who provide oversight to the District that is managing public money, don’t the members of the Board of Education have a fiduciary duty towards the residents and taxpayers of Berkeley Heights?
- In the townhall, our Superintendent revealed for the first time that they have a $6 Million dollar estimate for upgrading MKM to meet the Full Day Kindergarten. This information was not disclosed to the public during the 8th April 2021 presentation nor was it shared before the survey was sent out.
- The Superintendent has not shared the total cost associated with each scenario - on April 22nd when asked for cost associated with scenarios 3,4 and 5, Mr. Doug Reinstein conveniently answered that there is almost no cost difference between scenario 4 and 5, and ignoring anything about scenario 3.
- As of October 2020, the District was planning to hold a referendum to get resident inputs and bond for the cost of full day kindergarten. If they had followed the due process and chose to bond, the District would have qualified for millions in State aid which would have reduced the burden on Berkeley Heights taxpayers.
- By proposing to use the $2.5M from the Capital Reserves, is the Board performing their fiduciary duty to the residents of the town? Has the Superintendent explored all other avenues of funding the Full Day Kindergarten instead of dipping into the Capital Reserves, that could be returned to the taxpayers?
IMPACT ON CLASS SIZE AND CAPACITY IN SCHOOLS:
- Based on some of the earlier comments by our Superintendent and BOE President from April 8th to April 22nd it can be interpreted that reconfiguration is going to lead to smaller class sizes as it will create an “equitable solution” to address the current inequity in various elementary school class sizes. But the data says otherwise. Per the Oct 2020 enrollment numbers, the current 2nd grade has a total of 168 students in 9 sections (TPH-4, WW-2, MPS-3). In scenario 4, whichever way the split the students, if they retain ALL the 9 sections, it would mean an average of 18 students per section. Which is higher than the current class size of Hughes but lower than the class sizes of WW and MPS. Class sizes can only go down if they add more teachers and create more space, because per the presentation the $500K cost is only for modifications required to make 4 bathrooms.
- Our Superintendent announced that the neighborhoods opposite Columbia would be zoned back to Hughes, without providing how many students does that add to Hughes. That will drive even more inequity when we compare Hughes and Mountain Park for grades 3-5, in scenario 4.
- One parent Mrs.Dipti Khanna was interested in trying to understand the impact on class size as a result of the reconfiguration. Based on the enrollment data and capacity published in the 8th April 2021 presentation, Hughes is at 83-86% of their full capacity of 320 across scenarios 3,4 and 5. Mountain Park is at 67% of their full capacity in scenario 4. How is that equitable in terms of the number of students for the same 3-5 grades? Mrs. Dipti Khanna’s question on class sizes still remains unanswered – She has since followed up via email.
IMPACT ON TRAFFIC:
- The recent statement from Berkeley Heights Police Department states that there has been no comprehensive traffic analysis done to gauge how safe are the streets for those children who might walk to school in scenario 4.
- There has been no plan shared between BHPD and BOE on where crossing guards are required for those children from the current William Woodruff 2nd ,3rd and 4th grades who will need to cross the train tracks to walk to school. If their walking path is not deemed safe enough, 100% of these students will have to be driven to school in the morning.
- Based on the Oct 2020 enrollment numbers, William Woodruff has a total of 136 (45, 43 and 48) students in the 2nd ,3rd and 4th grades that are being zoned to Hughes. Even if 80% of them are driven to Hughes, it will likely add 100+ cars on Snyder Ave in the peak school hours in the morning. Those parents that are working will need to worry about how these students will walk home at dismissal and will need to hire drivers to drive them home thereby increasing the traffic on Snyder at school dismissal hours.
- If the Board Members have traveled on Snyder Ave at peak school times, they would have realized that with the current distribution of schools, the traffic for the Hughes pick up/drop off causes congestion already. Diverting 100+ cars due to the Woodruff students being zoned to Hughes will only add to the congestion. By eliminating the courtesy busing option, the Superintendent is only forcing more cars on the road!
- Hazardous conditions in the winter will make it impossible for the Woodruff students to walk to Hughes, with no clear sidewalks available when snow plows are going to pile up the snow along Snyder Ave. So more cars in the winter on icy roads are going to add to hazardous driving and walking conditions in the winter for these 3-5 graders who would have normally walked shorter distances on familiar roads.
- The lack of a comprehensive traffic study could impact the eligibility of the town to receive state and federal grants through the Safe Routes to school program.
- Snyder, Springfield, Plainfield, and Park Ave are County roads. If the new plan is going to direct more traffic to all of these roads, the town is mandated to inform the county about these changes. It appears that neither the Township administration nor the County has been engaged in the process. Typically the County would need a true traffic study and time to implement findings such as crosswalks striping, crossing guards etc. and account for additional costs for road maintenance.
- In the 8th April 2021 presentation, the Superintendent gave the impression that BHPD had signed off on the idea that there would be no traffic impact due to the redistricting. However the press statement from the BHPD Chief on 22nd April 2021 revealed that they had not been consulted. Then Dr.Varley changed her response during the townhall on 22nd April 2021 to mention that she had a few conversations with ‘hypothetical questions’ to BHPD in January 2020 and September 2020. But none of those are documented. Again, this highlights how this is not a well-thought out plan. https://www.tapinto.net/towns/berkeley-heights/categories/press-releases/articles/official-statement-from-berkeley-heights-police-department-regarding-current-redistricting-proposal
- How is it safe to determine a plan where elementary school kids are crossing railroad tracks, where there hasn’t been a true evaluation of safety or traffic study deemed fit to be recommended to the board of Ed to vote on 29th April 2021?
- How can our Superintendent confidently state the new redistricting plans impact on traffic won’t affect the community logistically?
IMPACT ON SPECIAL NEEDS and KIDS with DISABILITIES:
- When asked, the Superintendent and BOE president did NOT have data on what % of 20% impacted students are special needs or ESL.
- The superintendent does NOT have an impact analysis on our most vulnerable group of students with Special needs and ESL Students. We only heard a non-answer and how Mrs. Gardener addressed it at the last meeting but how can they say they have a plan when they don’t even know the exact number of students impacted in this group? And where is the plan?
- We haven’t seen one email from Mrs. Gardener to special needs parents discussing redistricting and reconfiguration and how this might impact special needs and students with disabilities.
PREPARING BERKELEY HEIGHTS SCHOOLS FOR LONG TERM:
- Our district doesn’t have answers repeatedly for data driven questions by Mr. Thomas Foregger, Mrs. Dipti Khanna, Mr. Todd Najarian and many more be it on 8th April, 14th April or 22nd April 2021 but they are willing to continue with this plan! And it was highlighted by questions from Mr. Michael Leblond and Mr. Jess Germansky.
- Mrs. Dipti Khanna’s question around "how much excess capacity created" adds more confusion to our Superintendent Dr. Varley’s proposal. Per Mr. Doug Reinstein, scenario 4 can add the ability to house 92 more students in Hughes. However, their published data for scenario 4 says Hughes will have 276 students with a capacity of 320. So, unless they cram more students in each classroom, already averaging 18-23 students in the proposed scenario, they will have to construct more classrooms to be able to "house" 92 more students? Where will these students be situated?
- The Board of education and Superintendent never responded to my questions from the 18th March 2021 meeting and one reiterated by another parent Mr.Santore on 22nd April 2021 on why they haven't considered switching back to FOUR K-5 neighborhood elementary schools as was originally intended for our town. All elementary schools and MKM early childhood center have a flat roof as they were built with a plan to be added on. We can take a leaf from the book of early town planners and plan for the future incoming students and keep our neighborhood elementary schools intact. Has this option even been considered?
- Mr. Doug Reinstein clearly stated in the last town hall that the information available to the BOE members has been shared with the parents and public but many of the key supporting documents for the redistricting plan are still unavailable our district website.
Our superintendent responded to one of my questions via email stating that there was NO formal approval from our board of Ed on the new plan, how are only two town halls to seek public input “deemed as appropriate for a change of this magnitude?”
Also, I would like to reiterate parents and residents were informed of the new redistricting and reconfiguration under “reimagining our schools” plan just 16 days ago at our 8th April 2021 BOE meeting. With NEW revelations on the cost of $6Million to update Mary K Macmillan Early childhood center at 22nd April 2021 town hall.
Links to town hall:
How is this a fair process when residents get a mere 21 DAYS prior to our school board voting on 29th April 2021?
We have seen so many comparisons in online discussions on social media that state our superintendent is like the CEO and the BOE is the Board to review and approve.... please show the residents which company Board allows for a major reconfiguration of the business (in this case, our schools) without FULL supporting data for all options that are on the table.
It is evident that the “Reimagining our schools plan” has not considered all aspects and missed some Key Elements! Our Superintendent Dr. Varley is trying to give the impression that they have thought through everything in larger forums like Townhalls.
And this is all happening during a global pandemic...don’t you think we should pause and plan to engage and involve parents for a significant change like this?
Lastly I would like to ask for Dr.Varley to respond to this public question:
Are you confident you have done the due diligence required to make this recommendation?
And with so many questions that still need to be answered on safety and cost, it is unclear how our Board of Education members and president feel that they have the confidence to vote on the recommendation of our Superintendent Dr.Varley?