Middle School shift due in fall ’18

BELLEVILLE —

It’s still a year away but the Belleville Board of Education is in motion now to roll back part of what was intended as a middle school expansion plan enacted four years ago.

In 2013, the then-board authorized consolidating all sixth-graders with grades 7 and 8 in the district’s Middle School but since then, school officials have had second thoughts on its implementation.

That dissatisfaction has led the present board to vote June 19 to return all sixth-graders back to the elementary schools and to authorize “redistricting” changing of school boundary lines as deemed necessary.

However, Superintendent Richard Tomko said last week that those students slated to begin sixth grade this fall would go to the Middle School.

To avoid the slipups of the past, Tomko said, “when apparently no planning went into [the move] and now we’re stuck with overcrowding,” the shift will be deferred until September 2018.

“In the next few weeks,” he added, “I will be appointing members of a transition team” to oversee the operation. “We’ll need a whole year to make sure the plan goes through as smoothly as possible.”

As part of that transition, Tomko said, the team will also be looking at how the move will end up impacting the district’s seven elementary schools.

The team will assess what it can do to remedy any imbalances that occur between a school’s capacity and the actual numbers of students it holds.

“For example, School 8 has our largest (elementary) population but School 7 has our largest space. And School 10 is across the street from the old SoHo hospital which is being converted to residential apartments so we may have to do something to accommodate any added students from that development.

Current elementary school enrollment figures provided by the superintendent show the Middle School topping all others at 989; School 8 has 438, followed by School 7 with 395; then School 4 with 348, School 5 with 339, School 3 with 313, School 10 with 165 and School 9 with 129.

At the same time, the team will also have to take into account enrollment projections, Tomko said. The district’s demographer has advised it that, “our [overall] population is growing.”

Meanwhile, the district is looking to deal with its aging school infrastructure – a recent consultant’s report recommended an $80 million capital fixup – and at its next meeting on July 13, the board may authorize placing a public question on the ballot that would allow it to spend at least a portion of that amount with the expectation that the state would provide up to 40% reimbursement on debt.

If that doesn’t happen July 13, it will happen soon, Tomko said. “We’re going ahead with a referendum – we have no choice if we want to keep our school buildings safe for the next generation of students.”

The board has already begun some modest improvements, having acquired new generators for the Middle School, authorized repairs to the front entrance canopy at School 7 and undertaking repairs and refinishing of floors in the boys’ and girls’ gyms and installing new basketball backboards at the Middle School and fixing a gym floor at the high school.

As the board looks to tackle these challenges, Tomko will be assuming some extra work, taking over the job of director of English & Language Arts following the retirement of the prior director.

“I’ll be overseeing ELA with the directors of elementary and secondary education,” he said. “It’s a major thing we need to be working on.”

At its May 22 meeting, the board voted to re-appoint Tomko with a new four-year deal, through June 30, 2021, at a current pay rate of $191,584, with annual 2% pay increases which would bring him up to little over $200,000 by the end of his new contract.

As per state Department of Education superintendent salary cap guidelines, Tomko had been previously earning $167,500 but the DOE has revised those rules.

The DOE has also extended the assignment of the district’s state fiscal monitor Tom Egan for an additional year.

   

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.