As the Brick school district’s financial crisis unfolds, officials may be forced to consider closing school buildings, instituting cuts or creating revenue streams including so-called “pay to play” sports programs.
The reality of the district’s financial instability in the wake of the state’s decision to cut $22 million from the district of the next several years came to a head after the PTA organization at Herbertsville Elementary School came to the district recently to make plans to donate a $35,000 playground. Members of the organization who contacted Shorebeat confidentially said they were told to hold off on the donation because of the uncertainty over whether the school would be open in the future.
“They said the school will be open for the 2019/20 school year but we don’t know what will happen after that,” the parent said.
James Edwards, the district’s business administrator, said Herbertsville Elementary was not singled out. A group such as a PTA in any of the district’s elementary schools would have been told the same thing, he confirmed.
Questions about the district’s future made up the bulk of the discussion at a special Board of Education meeting held Tuesday night. Residents who spoke at the meeting pushed officials to divulge their plans, but there were no definitive answers.
“The question you’re asking – what schools are closing and where are these kids moving – that’s something I can’t answer now,” said Board President Stephanie Wohlrab, responding to one resident. “We may need to close a school. We may need to do that. We may need to look into what other districts are doing in terms of pay-to-play sports.”
Brick attempted a “pay to play” sports program in its middle schools in 2011 – an experiment that ended in disaster with hundreds of parents loudly protesting at board meetings and all of the incumbent board members being ousted in the following election cycle.
But despite what was seen as a district in financial distress then, the current situation is far more dire, with the state imposing mandatory property tax increases on Brick Township to make up for some of the funding it has cut. Still, even with the imposition of the maximum tax increases allowed by law, the funding gap will not be closed.
Superintendent Gerard Dalton, at his final meeting before resigning from the district Aug. 1, said closing school buildings would not necessarily be feasible.
“It’s a misnomer that we have all this empty space and can shut down three or four buildings in the district,” said Dalton, responding to a question about space in the district following years of declines in student population. “When we had 3,000 additional students, we were running class sizes in elementary schools with 35 kids in them.”
Closing school buildings would have the potential to increase class sizes, he said. But district officials have publicly warned that class sizes will likely increase regardless of physical space due to staffing cuts and the potential elimination of some programs.
To speculation on specific school closures or cost-saving measures, Wohlrab stated: “We’re not there yet.”
Dalton recognized the district’s dilemma as he made a final statement as schools chief.
“I implore the community to stick together,” he said. “There’s a great deal that can be achieved when we stick together, and we need to focus on the future of this district. It is complicated, and there is history, and there is a lot in your control and out of your control, but we need to do it in a kind way.”