Closure of Westbrook School and redistricting of students appears to be on the agenda for the West Milford Board of Education.
In the past some trustees had the same decision in front of them and they accepted the fact that the school population is on a downward number of numbers of students and it is not frugal or practical to keep all buildings open.
Some past years when closing a school and redistricting student to other school was considered, there was considerable opposition. Historically, the vocal public was successful in keeping all the neighborhood schools open with taxpayers continuing to pay the resulting higher cost.
Dr. Ross Haber, a professional demographics consultant who worked with an earlier West Milford Board of Education, was back at the Oct. 18 school board meeting with new recommendations to close a building and redistrict students to create equally sized classes and services throughout the school district.
The report says that the closure of Westbrook School, as now proposed, would require redistricting that would affect the population in the schools remaining open. He showed maps of zones throughout the township where districting could move students from their present school to another township school. He explained that a goal is to keep class sizes uniform, use space in the best way possible and provide adequate transportation for the students.
Haber described the situation as “a balancing act -with one change generating another.”
The current Board of Education has not yet made a decision about what action they will take regarding closure of a school. Haber suggested Westbrook be closed and trustees apparently are going ahead with preparations for shutting down that school in 2023 as a cost-saving action. If this does happen there would be five schools open to house the approximate 1,200 students who live throughout the 80 square-mile Township of West Milford.
The consultant said the conceptual plan in the redistricting report appears to go as far as possible to keep neighborhood groups together, but because of resulting numbers left in the schools there need to be changes school in their school location for some students. Haber said the Westbrook pupils might end up split into three of the five schools that would still be open. – Apshawa, Maple Road, and Marshall Hill - all elementary schools.
Nearly all children living north of Cahill Cross Road would attend Marshall Hill School. Those south of that road would go to Maple Road School. A few living west of Union Valley Road would attend Paradise Knoll School. Preschool students were not included in the study, but most would go to Maple Road. Some current Maple Road students would be redistricted to Apshawa School, and some others would go to Marshall Hill, Haber’s report said.
The 2017-18 school year showed total K-12 enrollment in the district to be 3,363. That number decreased to 3,017 by the past September. By 2027-28 Haber expects the student population to be 2,790 students. The consultant expects the downward trend in local school population to continue with no sudden change in the opposite direction.
Former BOE President Jim Foody has called the suggestion to close Westbrook School a bad idea. He believes West Milford should have closed a school long ago because declining enrollment is not new in the district. At a recent BOE meeting he told the current BOE the school that they should close is Maple Road, not Westbrook, the newest school with 508 student capacity. He said there is enough classroom space at Westbrook to take all Maple Road children without separating children and sending them to separate schools.
The board’s expressed idea to bring the 26 students currently involved in special needs programs leased at the former Our Lady Queen of Peace Parochial School is not the most fugal plan, Foody said. He believes the local high school has capacity for 1840 students and there are only 944 individuals enrolled there now. “If we can’t fit these 26 students at the high school where with a capacity of 1840 students and only 944 are being educated there now, something is seriously wrong.” Foody said at last month’s meeting. The BOE did not respond to his suggestions or comments.
In 2010 Haber was hired to make a demographic and redistricting study. In that final report Haber said the district school enrollment between 1984 and 2010 for the school district decreased from 4,800 to 4,000 students. At that time he advised the BOE that it was not prudent to close a school and redistricting was not necessary. But, through the years situations continue to change with new faces on the BOE with similar and new situations to address. The need to revisit problems and make new decisions continues.
The thing that has changed through the years in West Milford is the shortage of people interested in serving as a school board member. On the current election ballot for school trustees only two people are candidates for three open seats. If a write-in candidate is not successful there will be someone appointed to the vacant seat. It was not unusual to see as many as 10 candidates running for three board seats a few decades ago.