By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
MARGATE – School enrollment projections from a long-range facilities plan prepared by the district’s architect in 2012 are on target, Superintendent Thomas Baruffi told the Board of Commissioners Thursday, Feb. 20.
Repeated requests from two Margate senior citizens to right-size the district by consolidating to one school would cost millions of dollars for renovations and take three or four years to implement, he said.
Baruffi’s appearance at the meeting came at the request of Mayor Michael Becker who asked the Board of Education to update the commissioners and the community on the issue of consolidation considering the drop in student enrollment over the last 10 years.
The district had 516 students in 2010, but enrollment has dropped to 356 this year. The drop in enrollment is not unique to Margate. Nearby Ventnor has also experienced a decline in enrollment since Hurricane Sandy, and other shore towns also have lower enrollments, driven in part by an increase in property values and the influx of second homeowners from out-of-state. The average assessment in Margate last year was $530,911 and is likely to increase again this year.
According to Richard Perniciaro, Ph.D., of the Atlantic Cape Community College Center for Regional and Business Research, who prepared an enrollment projection update in 2014, “With the advent of casino gaming, the competition for land on the barrier islands became all the more intense. As a result, many of the younger families with children have been priced out of the real estate market, the prime driver of the enrollment decline in Margate.”
The Margate Planning Board recently discussed finding ways to make the city more affordable for young families.
“The information in this document is still very pertinenent to any decision that is made,” Baruffi said, presenting the board with a Long-Range Facilities and Capital Project Plan Update prepared by Fraytak Veisz Hopkins Duthie, PC in March 2012.
“I have reviewed this several times,” Baruffi said.
The report details the functional capacity of the city’s two public schools – the William H. Ross Elementary School and the Eugene A. Tighe Middle School – which is relative to the number of students attending the schools and how classroom space is utilized.
The report highlights a past boom in housing and enrollment, which led the district to build the William H. Ross School, and a subsequent drop in enrollment that led to the closure of the Union Avenue School.
“When they did that report they did updated enrollment trends for 2012 to 2016. When you look at those enrollment trends, they are actually pretty accurate,” Baruffi said. “From 2016 to today, the enrollments have leveled off to 365-366 students.”
The functional capacity, or maximum number of students that can be housed and receive instruction according to state standards, is 302 students at Ross and 311 at the Tighe School, he said.
Those functional capacity rates are what the district will consider if it decides to move students to one school. The magic number for consolidation to one school remains at 300 students, Baruffi said.
Ross School would need to be renovated, district offices relocated but there is limited off-street parking and limited space for the gymnasium and athletic fields.
“If the district were to consolidate to one school, most likely, it would be at the Tighe School, because it doesn’t have the same challenges,” he said.
The Tighe School would be able to accept a second-floor addition above existing classroom wings, he said.
Although classroom efficiency is not that high at Tighe, the school has a gymnasium, multi-purpose room, a large library and the Dominick A. Potena Performing Arts Center.
“Tighe is not as big as people think it is relative to utilization and the number of students who could fit into the building and receive the proper education,” he said.
According to enrollment trends, enrollment could drop to 305 students by 2022, the report states.
“Obviously there would need a lot of renovation to classrooms because we have to meet mandatory classroom sizes bringing in elementary and pre-school students because those standards are much larger than for middle school students, so there is a lot of renovation that would need to take place,” he said.
“We have to absolutely use 300 as the number for efficiency standards, any higher would put the district in a bind regarding delivery of services,” he said.
It would make sense to move lower grades to Tighe due to the availability of athletic field space, gymnasiums and off-street parking.
“You’re talking about a multi-million-dollar bond referendum,” he said.
The district could relocate its central offices, which are currently housed on the third floor at Ross, perhaps to the former Union Avenue School, which is currently being used as the city’s municipal complex, he said.
The city would then have to decide what to do with the Ross School.
“There’s always a risk that the enrollment would trend back up again,” he said.
Last year, the board accepted 42 kindergarten students, more than was anticipated, and it is likely the district will have an influx of more than 40 kindergarten students again this year, he said.
Although that sounds like good news, the graduating seventh and eight grade classes are also larger, so overall enrollment could drop to 323 in 2021 and 305 in 2022.
One bright side is that the economy has improved, and more people may be able to make Margate their home.
“With the economy is right now, this is a place where people, if they can afford it, will want to move and raise their families and have their children attend the Margate schools, no doubt about it,” Baruffi said.
However, there are no guarantees and there is some risk if the district consolidates to one school.
“This is a tough decision. When asked what we are doing, my answer is, all we can do is look at the statistics because they still apply. We have to have some conversations and talk about where we want to go with this, because it’s not a black and white answer,” he said.
One of the strengths of the district is smaller class sizes, which parents feel is an asset. Board members have repeatedly said they do not want a consolidation to degrade the district’s educational programming.
According to resident John Sewell, who often addresses both boards about a pending discrimination lawsuit that could force K-8 school districts to consolidate, Baruffi’s statements should be scrutinized.
If the district does not consolidate to one school soon, the results of a Mercer County residential desegregation lawsuit brought by former NJ Supreme Court Associate Justice Gary Stein and the Latino Action Network could force Margate to consolidate – but with another school district, Sewell said.
According to school board Solicitor Eric Goldstein, it will take years for the case to settle.