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District Plans School Realignment to Avoid Bathroom Renovation Costs

Jennifer Dericks

Friday, December 20, 2013 • 2:31pm

SPARTA, NJ- The long awaited discussion about implementing full day kindergarten finally began at the Sparta Board of Education meeting on Monday night.  Board members and community members listened  as Superintendent Dennis Tobin explained the different scenarios and his recommendation.

Mohawk Avenue School has been the educational home for Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten students since Sept 2012.  Tobin reports that representatives from the state are requiring modifications to the building if a full day program is implemented there.  Tobin reports bathrooms must be added and renovated for an estimated cost of $560 thousand.  District officials have not answered the question as to what those additions and renovations are, nor who provided the estimate.

Sighting the high cost, Tobin then went on to explain his alternate, recommended plan.  Tobin is recommending realigning the district.  Alpine school would house kindergarten, first and second grade.  Helen Morgan would house third and fourth grade.  Mohawk Avenue school would see the return of fifth grade.   The pre-kindergarten program, serving special education and regular education students, would be moved to the high school.   District officials have not said specifically where in the building the three and four year-olds would be, only that "there is appropriate space. "

 When addressing the facility needs of the youngest children, Tobin stated, "whatever is necessary at the high school will be able to be completed by our maintenance staff during July and August."  There is no indication, however, as to what those renovations would be, nor the cost involved.

The issue causing Tobin to recommend realigning the schools,  stems from building code that requires bathrooms in kindergarten classrooms or to have bathrooms within 'line of sight' to the classrooms.  When Mohawk Avenue School was reopened for kindergarten the state approved a plan to have the school hire aides to "conduct the children safely to and from the bathroom," according to Neal Cramer, Sussex county Business Administrator. 

This plan requires a waiver to be approved each year which is not uncommon.  Currently the district receives annual waivers for the modular classroom building at the elementary schools and various 'non-traditional use of space' waivers for modified classrooms.

It remains unclear as the why the state would require such costly modification to the building when the conditions would remain largely unchanged from the current state approved plan.  State officials are at a loss when asked to explain the rationale behind the seeming penalty for Sparta trying to offer an expanded educational opportunity to the student, within the confines of strict budgetary constraints.

The primary consideration for implementing a full day kindergarten program is budgetary.  The board president cited recent discussion in Trenton indicating the possibility of full day kindergarten becoming mandated.  He supports using the $1.2 million in 'banked cap' funds currently available to implement the program.  There waslittle other board input to Tobin's presentation.

The main budgetary differences between the two possibilities is a one-time $560 thousand to address bathroom needs for the full day program to remain at Mohawk Avenue and $117 thousand annually for transportation if the schools are realigned.  

Either plan has reoccurring costs, most significantly staffing.  The additional staff is anticipated to cost approximately $1 million, including six more classroom teachers.  Currently there are four teachers covering eight half day sections of kindergarten.  The district expects the need to expand to ten sections once a full day program is available. Other needs would be for special education and special area teachers, aides, a guidance counselor  and support staff.

The additional reoccurring costs, regardless of where the program is housed,  are $41,032 for 'consumable' classroom supplies. 

Similarly, there are non-reoccurring costs regardless of where the program is housed.  They include;

  • $22,964 for Instructional Supplies,
  • $39,438 for Curriculum Resources,
  • $49,791 for Instructional Technology . 

Irrespective  of which grade is in Mohawk Avenue school, there  would  be approximately $130 thousand needed for one-time facility improvements, including kitchen equipment, cafeteria tables, chair lift repair and renovations to the modular classroom.

The current alignment of elementary schools allows  grade levels that are compatible, according to accepted pedagogy,  to be in the same building.  Traditionally, grades one through three are considered primary; learning how to read and building a numerical foundation of skills for fundamental math.  Fourth and fifth grade students, considered intermediate, make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn.  Resources, including curriculum, special services,  instrumental instruction, and others are aligned in the same way.  Splitting the grades into a different configuration will revert to the previous need of having staff travel between buildings to provide for the students.  That cost has not been included in the discussion.

Also part of the realignment plan requires the start and end times of district schools to be adjusted.  The proposed start and end times are; Sparta High School  7:05 to 2:09, Sparta Middle School 7:35 to 2:30, Mohawk Avenue School 8:25 to 3:00, Helen Morgan School 8:50 to 3:25, Alpine School 9:10 to 3:45.

Monday night's presentation was the beginning of the public process.  Tobin and Frank Favichia both indicated that there will be ongoing discussion at board meetings over the next few months.

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