Pequannock Debates Closing Elementary Schools, a Recap of Facts

By Christopher Lotito

Closing one of Pequannock's 3 elementary schools is easily one of the most maligned methods that the Pequannock Board of Education has discussed during 2012 to address demographics concerns posed by the recent Whitehall Associates report.

In January of 2012, Board of Education member Ken Hardaker summed up Pequannock's school-demographic turmoil for the Suburban Trends stating, "You'd be playing Russian roulette with it because someone's building is going to close," he also noted that in order to continue to support the 3 elementary schools, taxes would continue to rise unless the demographics issue was addressed and that final say would lie with the voters via a ballot question.
North Boulevard School in Pequannock

The school-elimination issue has dominated board meetings since the start of 2012 as well as the recently concluded Board of Education elections.  A contentious topic, asked about several times at both Board of Education candidate's nights, some consider the matter inevitable while others consider the very idea of closing an elementary school repugnant.

Asked directly whether or not they intended to close an elementary school, during the Cedar Crest candidate's night, respondents across the board stated this was the least preferable solution, citing full-day kindergarten and reorganization plans as some alternatives.  No one has disputed the validity of the projections offered by Whitehall Associates.
Under one reorganization plan,
some elementary students could be
accommodated at Pequannock
Township High School.

Pequannock News has obtained a copy of the report performed by Whitehall Associates, INC. investigating the projected demographics of the Pequannock school district through 2017.  This report has been available for Board Members and the public alike since mid-November of 2011.  Pequannock News was able to obtain a copy immediately, simply by submitting a written OPRA request (Open Public Records Act) at the Pequannock Board of Education Offices above the Post Office adjacent to Pequannock's Municipal Building.  Since the document was emailed, there was not even a charge for this service.

  • Clocking in at a very conservative 13 pages, the report itself was completed as of November 10, 2011.
  • The report is based on data collected from 2006 through 2011 and its projections stretch as far as 2017.
  • The report projects a drop of about 200 students over 5 years, meaning that though there are less students, it will cost more per student to educate them, as there is a minimum cost associated with a school district of this size.
  • It is noted within the report that no current plans exist within the municipality for residential developments (like "The Glens") which might impact the number of school age children in the district.

While determining the exact cause of the drop in school age population is difficult at best and beyond the scope of this article, some rudimentary connections may be drawn between a so-called bubble of students passing through the school system over the past decade:
Stephen J Gerace School in Pequannock

  • Many of these students are the tail end of a wave that finds its beginnings in the baby-boomer generation, while a few more owe their presence in Pequannock to the amount of affordable housing available (both reserved and unofficial).  
  • Typically, young families are both more likely to have school age children and less likely to have the income available to purchase homes in the more expensive zip-codes, thus an increase in affordable housing can translate into an increase in school age children.  
  • Specifically, the completion of "The Glens" housing development in Pequannock during the 1990's may be credited with the addition of children to the school district.  
  • Factors like a lack of available credit and mortgages can also have a great effect in reducing young families' ability to purchase homes of their own, 2 factors which have been heavily in play since the real estate bust of 2006.  
  • A third factor in this is the potential complicacy and delay of recent COAH applications due to Governor Christie's disbanding of the 12 member COAH Council on June 29, 2011, an event whose long term consequences, good and bad, have yet to be fully realized.

The Whitehall Associates report was completed in November of 2011 and based upon figures from far before that, but since that time, several other factors have come into play which may further reduce the school age population in Pequannock:

  • The revaluation of the town.  In response to an onslaught of tax appeals, Pequannock opted to reassess the township's taxes this past year, resulting in a decrease in taxes for many homeowners.  As a result, COAH qualified units, which must be bought back at a specified value according to state statute, may end up being sold to private individuals and no longer available as COAH units.  This is an issue being addressed state-wide, as discussed by Rocco Salluce at Pequannock's April Council Meeting.
  • Hurricane Irene has been an undeniable factor in a drop of school age children in the district above and beyond the projections of the Whitehall Associates report.  As a result of the subsequent flooding, some families have opted to move out of the township, despite efforts by the township council to incentivize residents to stay via a 50% fee waiver for home-elevation construction.

While closing an elementary school is perceived as a solution by some, critics remain concerned that as demographics change and the school is needed again, the building and land may not be available.  Even if the building were leased, as a community center (just one idea being considered), when reclaimed after the lease the facilities would be 5, 10, or more years past their prime and could require extensive rehabilitation.  One of the challenges in running a school district is the need to simultaneously plan for the next 9 months, the next 5 years, and the next 25 years; a challenge felt most acutely within the Pequannock community at this time.  Obviously, if the number of elementary schools were reduced from 3 to 2 in Pequannock, a significant change in busing would also need to occur to ensure all students would still have reasonable access to their assigned schools.

Whatever the decision of the Board of Education, it will be vital that the taxpayers of Pequannock educate themselves about these issues as the public has been assured that their opinion will take precedence in the future of Pequannock's school system.  This article is intended to provide some small overview of a vast and complex issue, another good source is the Whitehall Associates demographic report itself, available here sans any OPRA request:

Christopher Lotito is a member of the Pequannock Historic District, Open Space, and Flood Control Advisory Commissions as well as the author of  "Torrent," a book about flooding in the region.  Lotito's personal mission is to reduce new taxes, drastically reduce flooding, and preserve more green spaces for our children.  Christopher Lotito Profile

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