BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. — Two town halls, a survey of “stakeholders,” followed by a Board of Education meeting will take place in the coming two-and-a-half weeks. At the end of those meetings, and based on the survey results, Superintendent of Schools Melissa Varley will recommend whether the district will redistrict in one fell swoop for the start of school in September 2021, or if that will happen in a slower roll-out with the majority of the redistricting happening in September 2022. In either event fewer than 20 percent of children in the district will be affected by the change.

The Town Halls will be held virtually on Zoom on Wednesday, April 14, and Thursday, April 22. A survey will be distributed on April 15th and parents will have until April 25th to indicate their preference.There will be a 10-day window for the surveys and the tally will be done after the 25th. The results of the surveys will be compiled and the recommendations of the public will be taken into consideration by the superintendent before she makes her recommendation to the Board of Education at its meeting on Thursday, April 29. The board will take an official vote at that meeting. A limited number of people will be permitted to attend the meetings in person because of COVID restrictions. The links to the meetings can be found on the district’s website, here.

Whatever the timeline is, this fall, when school begins in September, there will be Universal Full-day Kindergarten (FDK) for all the eligible students in the district. And, by the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, the Berkeley Heights School District will have one Pre K to 2 school — Mary Kay McMillin (MKM) and one K-2 school — Woodruff School, and two grade 3 to 5 schools — Thomas P. Hughes and Mountain Park schools, and the redistricting will be finished. 

The Road to Universal Full-day Kindergarten began back in fall of 2014 - see Slide 4, on the board’s presentation. Discussions continued on and off from 2015-2018. In March 2019, the board discussed whether the district should offer a pilot program for FDK or jump into hosting FDK. By November 2019, the FDK Pilot Program was set for 2020-2021. This year discussions began in February, with an announcement that there would definitely be Universal FDK in September 2021. 

A total of five scenarios for how and when to implement FDK were considered. Three of them, including do nothing, were considered and eliminated by the team working on the project. Leaving the public and the board with two options: Scenario 4 or Scenario 5.

One reason for the reorganization of the district, other than providing Universal FDK, was to “ensure that every child has the academic, social, and emotional support needed to succeed,” according to one of the slides in a 32-slide presentation made at the April 8 board meeting.

Under the current arrangement, there is a “lack of equity” between the district elementary schools.

There were several goals to be met to achieve equity: 

  • Making staffing and class sizes more consistent; 
  • Ensuring support and staff members have similar schedules and teach a similar number of students; 
  • Providing time so teachers can design common lessons and assessments; 
  • Ensuring elementary principals supervise similar numbers of staff members and have similar numbers of students;
  • Using facilities and resources to their full potential. 
  • In addition, achieving these goals should be done while administrators, teachers and support staff are following “Best Practices.” Those best practices include learning standards being grouped by the NJDOE into K-2 and 3-5 “bands,” according to Slide 12. 

The choice of Scenario 4 or 5 leads to cost-savings in the area of transportation. Part of the district re-design took into account whether students could easily walk to school.All students who live further than two miles from their schools will be bused, said School Board President Doug Reinstein.

More than 350 people attended the Zoom meeting, and more were present at the Board of Education meeting.

When the Citizen’s Hearing was opened, people raised their “hand” in Zoom and waited their turn to speak.

Betty Francisco, who has two children in MKM, said she favored Scenario 4, and said she wondered why Option 5 was included. 

Reinstein said “both option 4 and option 5 get us to the same endgame … There are some people who believe that when students come back to school in September they should come back to the same school, with the same grade structures, with the same principals,” and delay the larger change until the second year. There are a number of people who believe all the changes should be made in September, so the board and administration is “looking for community input”… which is why there are two scenarios.

Sai Bhargavi asked a number of questions, including why the announcement that the board planned to have Universal FDK in fall 2021 was made in early February, after the board had agreed in October 2020 that there would be no referendum and no Universal FDK. 

Reinstein said that decision was made because “parents needed to know.” Board members knew there would be many parents who would be calling around and making reservations with non-refundable deposits for private full day kindergarten programs. So, even though the plans were not finalized in February, parents had an assurance there would be a FDK program in the fall.

Renee Ciesla, who has students in fourth and seventh grade, asked how parents will be able to help in the decision between the two scenarios. 

Reinstein said there would be “a survey going out to all stakeholders who will be directly impacted by this,” and that the board will do “everything in its power to answer all questions” at the town hall meetings. If there are still questions, a board member will follow up.

As for the survey, Dr. Varley said once they are received, “I will take the recommendation and community feedback before I make my recommendations to the board.”

Reinstein said the surveys will be open for a 10-day window, from April 15 to April 25, and “if greater than 55 percent of the community” is in favor of one scenario over the other, ”they will have spoken loudly and clearly.” If between 50 and 54 percent are in favor of a scenario, that will be within the margin of error,” which means the community is equally divided. “The superintendent has indicated that she will recommend the scenario the community has spoken clearly about,” he said. 

Heidi Warner-Richardson asked, “Who are the stakeholders?”

Reinstein said, “Pre-K to fourth grade families are the stakeholders.”

Another person asked how the changes in who attends which school were made.

Dr. Varley said she “used the recycling map to split the town,” and didn’t use any other criteria.  Students who live opposite Columbia Middle School will go to MKM and Mountain Park and students “who live behind the hardware store” will go to Woodruff and Hughes.

All rising fifth grade students will be able to stay at their current school, or move to Hughes or Mountain Park in both scenarios.

Scenario 4, has Rising Kindergarten students from Preschool, rising first grade students from MKM or a private Kindergarten going to MKM or Woodruff, and Rising second grade students from MKM going to MKM or Woodruff, depending upon the redistricting map.

In Scenario 5, Year 1, rising second grade students in MKM will go to Hughes or Mountain Park, which will save them from having to make another transition the next year.  

There were parents who recommended making no changes next year; others who opposed any redistricting at all, and at least one who favored a three-year-roll out. Parents who expected to have siblings in the same school expressed their disappointment that this won’t happen. Others questioned the lack of parental involvement in the early stages of the research and planning.

Tom Foregger urged the board to go back to K-5 schools and to ask the community about it, since “all residents will be paying for what you do, so they should have a say ... Make all the options part of the survey. A referendum is a good thing. If you want community input, you should have one. Don’t bypass a referendum.”

The major cost to this project is adding bathrooms to Kindergarten rooms — each Kindergarten room is required to have a self-contained bathroom. That will cost the district $500,000 or so and will be paid from the capital reserve fund.