By Ron Leir
The path to a middle school setup for Kearny’s public school system has taken a new twist.
Abandoning the concept of consolidating grades 6, 7 and 8 into a middle school campus — Lincoln School and the old St. Stephen’s School – the district is now looking to merge only grades 7 and 8 at Lincoln School.
The Board of Education voted 6-to-2 (Dan Esteves was absent), with John Plaugic and John Leadbeater dissenting, to move forward with the new plan.
Specifically, the board majority approved a recommendation by Acting Schools Superintendent Patricia Blood to:
• Reconfigure the district to designate one school (Lincoln) to house grades 7 and 8; and to designate five schools (Garfield, Roosevelt, Schuyler, Franklin and Washington Schools) to handle pre-K through grade 6. No changes will be made at Kearny High.
• Retain R&R Education Consultants LLP of New York for $10,000 to provide recommendations for creating new district lines that will best accommodate the reconfigured district.
Blood said that Kearny school administrators and other stakeholders in the community feel that pooling grades 6, 7 and 8 “is the perfect configuration” for a middle school, housing 7th and 8th graders together is the most practical solution, “based on [the use of] available facilities.”
Acquiring St. Stephen’s School has been ruled out after a hard look at the numbers, Blood said. “It would mean spending millions to make it ADA-compliant and for other improvements,” not to mention the cost of leasing or purchasing the building. Blood said administrators considered using St. Stephen’s for pre-K and kindergarten students but ruled that out “because we’d need busing.”
Blood acknowledged that based on a newly received demographer’s report, prepared by R&R Education Consultants, that projects an enrollment growth over the next five years of 400 “across all grade levels,” the revised middle school plan may be only a stop-gap measure for the next “three to five years.”
On the other hand, if nothing is done now, Blood said, “we’ll end up with TCUs (temporary classroom trailers) at Garfield and Washington Schools and potentially at Schuyler School” and the district will be looking at building a new school “in two years.”
And, she said, “we’ll need to have replacements for 25 teachers retiring this year, we’ll have to hire seven more special education teachers and maybe one more world language teacher.”
However, with the new consolidation plan, Blood said, “We do think all [school] buildings will be at or below capacity and we can guarantee a lower class size for schools housing pre-K to grade 6: on average, there should be less than 18 for pre- K, less than 21 for K to grade 2, 23 for grades 3 and 4 and 25 for grades 5 and 6.”
Plus, Blood said, the district can arrange to fill vacated teacher slots created by retirements through transfers of teachers who hold multicertifications. “We expect most will be voluntary and a few non-voluntary,” she said. “The good news is that no one will lose their position.”
A total of 857 students currently enrolled in sixth-grade and seventh-grade will be relocated to Lincoln under the consolidation plan, resulting in as many as 29 additional pre-K to grade 6 classrooms becoming available, she said.
At the same time, the district will have to redistrict 352 students now attending pre-K to grade 5 classes at Lincoln and there may be “some redistricting at Garfield and Washington Schools,” Blood said.
Board members Plaugic and Leadbeater questioned whether Blood was allowing enough time to implement the plan by the fall 2014 term.
“You’re putting the cart before the horse,” Plaugic and Leadbeater warned.
“It’s a good idea,” said Plaugic, “but there’s no way in the world you’re going to do this in four months,” especially if “you’ll be tapping into last year’s reserves and dealing with the [state-mandated] 2% cap.”
Blood said timing won’t be a problem because “the only things we’ll be doing is moving teachers and boxes of supplies.” Lyndhurst teachers got practically no notice when that district recently went to redistricting, she added. And, she said, the Kearny district “hasn’t gone to cap in five years.”
Last week, Blood told The Observer that the final numbers anticipated savings resulting from the plan’s implementation had yet to be crunched. She also said that classroom desks and chairs would also figure in the move.