Published On: Fri, Nov 4th, 2016

Large Crowd at Wednesday Public Meeting on Future of Stockton School

img_0835Nearly 100 people packed into the Stockton Fire Company Building on Wednesday for a public meeting and presentation by the South Hunterdon Regional School District Board of Education (BOE) and Superintendent Dr. Louis Muenker on the future of the Stockton Borough Elementary School, which is New Jersey’s oldest continuing operating school.

Board President Dan Seiter started things off by reviewing an analysis report done by architectural group, McKissick Associates, as well as presenting  conclusions of strategic planning meetings and a community advisory committee.

McKissick came up with 10 options for the future of the South Hunterdon facilities, of which only three included the Stockton building remaining as a functioning school. The citizen advisory committee, which included nine Stockton residents, algorithmatically ranked the options and trimmed the list of 10, down to two:

  • Two K – 6 populations, one at Lambertville Public School, the other at West Amwell Elementary School, with grades 7 – 12 at the South Hunterdon campus
  • All of grades K – 12 at the South Hunterdon campus, or “the New Hope model,” with a new building adjacent to South Hunterdon Middle and High School for the elementary students

According to Seiter, the four buildings in the South Hunterdon Regional District currently allow for a capacity of 1,300 students, and the student population is presently at 924. Seiter and Muenker both cited declining birth rates, not just locally, but also nationally, and said the district expects population to drop to around 700 by 2024, the graduation date for students currently in fifth grade.

Many Stockton residents were unmoved by the numbers. Resident Tony Greco emotionally stated, “That building is the pride of Stockton borough, and now the decision is the hands of a small group of people. Without that school, what’s going to draw people here . . . the building is the sanctity of what keeps us together.”

Sara Bizzaro, vice president of the Stockton School PTO and organizer of the Friends of Stockton Borough Elementary School Facebook Group, speculated reasons the Board of Education would turn down the other eight options before the public meeting in Stockton. Seiter replied that there were at least three other strategic public meetings last school year.

Stockton School future population projections provided by the BOE

Stockton School future population projections provided by the South Hunterdon Regional BOE.

Some in the the audience were suspect of the student population projections that Seiter was using, and one person accused the board of education of keeping numbers artificially low by excluding pre-K students.

Muenker later told the Free Press that the district is planning on a more “robust pre-K program” that is inclusive for all district regular education, as well as special needs students, at the Lambertville Public School location.

From there, the focus of the meeting turned to the NJ School Choice Program. Currently there are 14 borough students and 10 choice students at the Stockton school. The BOE’s projection in two years is a drop to 7 Stockton students and 6 choice students at the school. The discussion then turned to the future amount of choice seats and how they are allocated across the four buildings.

South Hunterdon High School Principal and District School Choice Contract manager Jennifer MacKnight noted that the choice program has cost the state a lot of money, so officials capped the total seats a district would be allowed. Currently 96 choice students attend the South Hunterdon schools, and there are only 16 seats available district wide for the 2017-18 school year.

Some in the audience wondered if all 16 of the new spots could be reserved for the Stockton school, but MacKnight said the choice seats include middle and high school students, as well. Preference is given to out-of-district students with siblings currently in the choice program, then to public school students first, and charter school students next, he said.

One attendee interpreted this as “sixteen seats taken from us,” and highlighted Stockton’s walkability, while cautioning she did not want borough students attending a “random school in the middle of nowhere,” referring to West Amwell Elementary School.

Many current and past Stockton students spoke up at Wednesday’s meeting, including one middle school student who recalled her time at Stockton as “the best seven years of my life.” Another audience member said Stockton’s practice of combining grades, with new research, should be looked at as “a model, not a pariah.”

Muenker then took one question asking the reasons behind moving the kindergarten class from Stockton this year. He explained that three parents of current first graders, who all attended the Stockton school as kindergartners, requested by letter to move to West Amwell Elementary.

One of the letters cited lack of the school itself not having a music room, art room, gymnasium, auditorium, health and nurse’s office, cafeteria, meeting space, common entrance, hallways, unified student bathrooms, and a library.

These special requests were considered and granted. With only one kindergarten-aged Stockton student coming in this year, the BOE acted to move the student to West Amwell, along with the requested first graders.

Seiter said the district will likely keep the Stockton site open in the 2017-18 school year, and a vote to make that official is expected at the next BOE meeting at the Stockton Fire House on Monday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m.

When asked if a vote on the 2018-19 school year could potentially occur at the Nov, 28 meeting, Muenker admitted it was not likely, but did not rule out the possibility.

BOE Vice-President Jim Gallagher urged other members too not to vote on status for the 2018–19 school year at this time and use this year to develop a plan for how to bring additional students into Stockton School, and rebuild the enrollment, if it is possible to do so, before a decision on the school’s future is made.

Stockton Borough Elementary School has been continuously operating since 1832, and the current structure was finished in 1872.

UPDATE 8:14pm: BOE Vice President Jim Gallagher’s comments have been updated and clarified. 

 

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About the Author

- Steve Chernoski is a writer, film director and teacher who lives in Lambertville. Here's his website: http://stevechernoski.com.

Displaying 5 Comments
Have Your Say
  1. thasluprus@thraml.com' Sandra says:

    Is my math correct? There are 14 borough students and 10 choice for a total enrollment of 24 students. Is that distributed over 7 grades (K-6) or is that just for the first grade? I did substitute there a few times. I must say I was very impressed. The dedicated staff does a wonderful job in a VERY limited facility.

  2. Nice article, and on the whole accurate. But if I may I’d like to clarify the statement attributed to me at the end of the article. I support a vote, as the board president proposed, on the status of Stockton for the 2017-18 school year. However, at the meeting I encouraged the board of education NOT to vote on status for the following (2018–19) school year at this time. I am hopeful that the board would use the year to develop a plan for how to bring additional students into Stockton School, and rebuild the enrollment, if it is possible to do so, before a decision on the school’s future is made.

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