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End of an Era: Herbertsville School to Close, Reopen as Preschool

Herbertsville Elementary School (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Herbertsville Elementary School (Photo: Daniel Nee)

They spoke by the dozen, raising concerns, revealing personal stories of kindness and community, and shedding tears.

Parents of students at Herbertsville Elementary School begged the Board of Education to stop the closing of the school as a traditional elementary building, saying the school has been the center of the community for decades, drawing families to settle in the northeast corner of Brick. But a budget shortfall had sealed the school’s fate – and officials warned that Herbertsville may not be the last school to be shuttered.

A sign opposing the closure of Herbertsville Elementary School in Brick. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

A sign opposing the closure of Herbertsville Elementary School in Brick. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

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The state will slash more than $4 million from the Brick school district’s budget this year. But at the same time, the state is expected to provide $4.2 million for Brick’s preschool program – money that cannot be spent on any other grade or program. The preschool program will be offered at Herbertsville next year in addition to Warren H. Wolf Elementary School, where it is currently housed. But if not for preschool program, Herbertsville likely would have been shuttered entirely, said district Business Administrator James Edwards.

“With the numbers we’re looking at, schools are going to have to close,” said Board President Stephanie Wohlrab, speaking of the $22 million funding cut from the state that is continuing to be phased in over the next five years.

There will be “difficult decisions that will affect every child in this district,” she warned, with a prediction that another school will have to close its doors sometime over the next several years if funding is not restored.

“We’re probably going to have to close a second school,” Wohlrab said. “Unfortunately, that’s what it is.”

The news hit parents hard. Some said they were hesitant in placing their children in Brick’s school system, but decided to move to town after seeing the close-knit community that had formed around Herbertsville School. Others said they would move before sending their children elsewhere.

“We kept this news from our children as long as we could,” said parent Christine Reeve, explaining how her son cried after learning he would not be returning to his school next year. Another parent said her son told her that he would take back his Christmas gift request for video games if it meant it would save the school.

Next year, Herbertsville will operate nine classes as part of the district’s preschool program, which is funded through state grants. The program will expand from 261 students this year to 450 next year. Of those students, 135 will be educated at nine classrooms within Herbertsville. The remainder will be based at Warren H. Wolf on Chambers Bridge Road, with 21 classrooms in use.

Herbertsville Elementary School (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Herbertsville Elementary School (Photo: Daniel Nee)

A few parents urged the school board to reject the funding for preschool if it meant keeping Herbertsville operating as a regular elementary school. But Edwards said the grant had no bearing on the repurposing of the building. Given the state funding cuts, the district would have had to close the school anyway.

Some parents urged the district to scatter the preschool program across the district.

“It doesn’t make sense to me to have a bus picking up kids in Baywood and bring them all the way to Herbertsville,” said parent Anthony DiGilio. “It would make more sense to distribute them to different schools where they’re eventually going to go anyway.”

Herbertsville costs Brick about $1.8 million to run every year, money which will no longer be available after the impending cuts are applied, Edwards said. A small school like Herbertsville, a big part of its charm and long history of having an extra-personal touch in a large town like Brick, is no longer affordable.

“We would not be able to sustain running a building with 237 kids,” said Edwards. “It wouldn’t be sustainable with the budget constraints we’re under. I believe in community schools, it’s very important, but we have a revenue problem that produces an expense problem.”

The board ultimately voted to submit its preschool plans to the state, sealing the fate of Herbertsville School’s future. Some parents cried, some hollered at board members and others appeared in shock.

The district has not announced where Herbertsville’s current students will be educated come the 2020-21 school year.

“We’re going to begin to create a plan to place those students in other schools,” said Susan McNamara, Director of Planning, Research and Evaluation for the district. “There’s a lot that goes into that. We have to make sure we’re balancing class sizes to the best of our ability, transporting students within a close proximity of their homes and putting all of those factors in place.”

Despite those challenges, McNamara said, the district will work quickly to develop the redistricting plans so families can begin doing their own planning for the new school year. She said the district will look toward other recent redistricting efforts, such as when students were moved to Warren H. Wolf Elementary, as a guide.

“This is not something anyone wants to see happen,” she stressed.

Some parents said they were upset about what they saw as a lack of transparency in the process of closing the school. The district previously warned the school may be closed next year, but officials said many residents may not have begun paying close attention to the fiscal crisis spurred by the state funding cuts until more recently. They pointed to dozens of articles on Shorebeat, Patch and print newspapers on the topic.

One parent said it appeared Herbertsville was being “sacrificed for the district’s financial crisis,” an allegation officials said was untrue.

“It’s not personal – I know it feels very personal – but we knew these cuts were coming and we knew we would have to move students,” Wohlrab said.

Plus, she said, the final decision to repurpose Herbertsville was made recently, after Brick received a one-two punch of bad news: its lawsuit against the state over the funding cuts was dismissed and must be taken up on appeal, and the state refused Brick’s request for emergency aid.

In the future, an additional school could close, sports programs may switch to a “pay to play” system, class sizes will eclipse 30 students per room and teachers will be laid off, officials said. Their message to parents was to get involved, lobby Trenton lawmakers and protest the funding cuts. The district is going to plan an organized demonstration in Trenton in the future.

“We are here now, and it’s only going to get worse from here,” Wohlrab said.

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