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As enrollment shrinks and taxes rise, school merger talk resumes

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Catherine Krause teaches science to every student in both the Avalon and Stone Harbor schools — all 130 of them.

As the dozen fifth-graders at the Avalon School split into four teams to build pullies last week, they maneuvered around amusement park rides the seventh-graders are creating to study force and motion.

“I have them for all four years,” Krause said of the 60 students in grades 5 to 8 at the school. “I really get to know their strengths and weaknesses.”

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Krause also makes the three-mile drive to the neighboring Stone Harbor School, where she teaches science lessons in the grade K-4 school to 70 students who make bouncy balls and study fossils.

Welcome to two of the smallest school districts in New Jersey, where almost every educator has multiple roles and class sizes average about a dozen students.

Five years ago, facing a state push for regionalization, the two school boards developed a unique arrangement to share students that has allowed them to keep both schools open and share them with their communities.

“Both towns supported the plan because they both wanted to keep their schools,” said Superintendent Stacey LaRocca Tracy, who is shared by both districts. “No one wanted to regionalize.”

Gov. Chris Christie’s administration abandoned Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s regionalization efforts.

But frozen state school aid, spending caps, increasing salary and benefits costs, and rising property taxes have again brought talk of regionalization to the forefront. In November, the state Senate passed a bill to create a new School Regionalization Task Force to study how it might still be encouraged.

The issue is of special concern in Atlantic and Cape May counties. Most districts have lost both students and state aid in the past five years, as property taxes continued to rise. Some are very small and prime targets for regionalization.

But none wants to be forced to merge, and the question of how participating towns would be assessed for taxes remains a huge obstacle, since there are typically winners and losers.

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Statewide, three districts in Hunterdon County recently formed a new regional district. But three existing regional districts are litigating to disband. Cape May City has spent years trying to get out of or renegotiate its participation in the Lower Cape May Regional School District, citing a disparity in property-tax apportionment.

“Until you resolve the property-tax issue, you won’t get districts to agree to merge,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, who said she still supports the new task force as a way to generate new ideas that could help some districts.

For Avalon and Stone Harbor, sharing schools — and taking in tuition students who pay $2,800 a year — has allowed the small districts to keep both schools open and offer a robust music, art and Spanish program.

All of the K-4 students from both towns attend the Stone Harbor School. All of the students in grades 5-8 attend the Avalon School. A tuition formula allocates payments for budgeting. The two schools share a bus. About 40 percent of the students, most from the Cape May Court House area, pay tuition to attend.

Their small enrollment still makes the two districts among the highest-spending in the state on a per-student basis. But thanks to a large ratable base of summer homes that are vacant during the school year, property taxes remain among the lowest in the state at less than 5 cents per $100 of assessed value, or about $500 on a house assessed at $1 million.

While they remain two districts, they operate more like one. There is one master teachers contract, and teachers can be moved from one school to the other as needed. The two schools share art and music teachers. The Avalon School art room has a ceramic kiln, and in 2013 the graduating class worked with teacher Jackie Farina to make a customized tile mural.

“They even did the grouting themselves,” Farina said.

One part-time cafeteria worker, Lisa Dean, cooks and serves about 50 lunches each day at the Avalon School, a job she’s done for about 14 years.

“I can customize for allergies or do a special order if someone doesn’t want cheese on their burger,” she said.

The Avalon School library is also the city’s public library, and a new outdoor track in Avalon and playground in Stone Harbor are open to the community.

Kelly McCorristin, the librarian for both schools, graduated from the Avalon School and is thrilled to return.

“I love the community aspect,” she said. “I love that I will see every student and be a consistent face they will see every year.”

Teachers say the small class size means a lot of individual attention. Students say they like the school and get along with their classmates.

“We know everyone,” said eighth-grader Connor Schiela, 13. “It’s a good thing.”

“We get more one-on-one time,” said Alyssa Welliver, 14.

Avalon parent Stacy Ohntrup said her daughter Ashley, 14, was initially upset when she had to move to the Stone Harbor School. But she knew her classmates from other activities, and larger classes provided better socialization and programs.

“It worked out great,” she said.

Ashley will attend Middle Townsihp High School next year, but Ohntrup said there would not be support to regionalize the two K-8 schools with the larger K-12 district.

“We like having our children close by,” she said. “That would have been too big a change.”

State Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, Passaic, a co-sponsor of the regionalization task force bill, said he wants to create incentives and remove impediments to regionalization, but not force it on any district.

“If that’s what you want, to keep your little district, fine,” he said. “Just don’t complain about your property taxes.”

Contact: 609-272-7241

Twitter @ACPressDamico

Copy desk chief / comics blogger

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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