WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP — The Green Bank Elementary School opened its doors only four years ago, but residents already fear it may close as funding for the tiny school district dwindles.
When the $5.4 million building opened in 2006, it became the center of this rural Burlington County community, its bright white exterior and green trim a striking contrast to the decrepit structures students used previously.
It is far from the first small school in this region to face a financial crisis. But the depth of aid cuts here, coupled with the substantial investment in this new schoolhouse, might force painful decisions in the near future.
“This is unknown territory for all of us,” Washington Township Board of Education President Jeanne Fox-Ford said. “We’ve never been this bad off.”
Many local districts have gone through similar dilemmas in recent years, and some still face those issues.
Districts along the southwestern border of Cumberland and Salem counties have had to merge services, as have several small barrier island communities in Cape May and Atlantic counties.
Shiloh closed its lone school a few years ago, a change many locals strongly opposed, fearing a loss of local identity. Other districts such as Corbin City and Longport lost their schools long ago.
Estell Manor managed to save its school this year, but only after City Council refused to reduce further a school budget voters rejected because of a 23.4-cent tax rate increase. Parents and teachers cheered that decision, but it enraged others in the community and may have led to the lone incumbent council member on the ballot badly losing re-election earlier this month.
Washington Township’s new school was a controversial project since the beginning. Many residents felt it was a waste of money to build an entirely new structure for only 70 students at the time. Others thought the schools they had were inadequate but hated the idea of moving classes to Mullica Township schools.
Eventually, the Board of Education approved the project without a bond referendum, paying for it through a capital fund supported by aid money the township received from the state.
Committeeman Barry Cavileer opposed the plan at the time — before his election to the committee — but after it was built, he said he felt everyone had pride in the school and wanted to make the best of it.
With a budget of $2 million, the district lost nearly $100,000 in state formula aid this year, down from $739,581 in 2009-10, according to state Education Department records. The township municipal government helped the school district by transferring more than $530,000 in state aid — a portion of the $1.1 million it gets as compensation for the tax-exempt open space within its borders.
But the state cut that open-space money by a third in next year’s budget, and plans to eliminate it completely in the next few years. Now, local leaders are scrambling to find ways to keep the district and its new school functioning.
Cavileer said he believes that without the substantial aid it once received, the school’s closing may be inevitable.
“You didn’t have to be too much of a prophet to see that would be a problem coming up,” he said. “I think all of us are going to be reluctant to see it go, but you have to be practical.”
Fox-Ford said she felt the township still wanted to preserve its character, and that sending students to another district remains an unpopular idea.
“Being a longtime member of this community, no one wants to see the school go away,” she said. Many current students are the latest of several family generations to go through the district.
Joyce and Robert Sutton live near the school on River Road, and three of their children went through the local school system. Their oldest daughter went to class in the the original building, where a principal and two teachers taught the entire K-8 building at one time.
They said they were proud of that education, but at the same time they could not see their small hometown continuing to fund a school that does not have enough students to fill its classrooms.
“It’s ridiculous,” Joyce Sutton said. “There’s a big school there, with a big auditorium, but nothing’s happening.”
Washington Township currently shares its superintendent, Brenda Harring-Marro, as well as several teachers and staff, with Mullica. This year, the 23 students from sixth, seventh and eighth grades started going to Mullica’s middle school, six miles south across the Mullica River.
That has already left a few of the new classrooms empty in the Green Bank School. There simply were too few students in those classes to provide a valuable learning environment, Fox-Ford said.
Now, only 43 students go to the school, from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. The youngest classes are combined — pre-kindergarten with kindergarten, first with second, third with fourth — and the fifth-grade class has only eight students.
With so much township land restricted to development, there is little chance of the local population expanding significantly. Students from any town can go to the school since it is part of a choice district, but only six students from outside the township do.
Hoping for funding
The idea of sending all the district’s students to Mullica is complicated by the new building. It is still bright and sparkling clean inside, with lights that flick on and off automatically and a media center with a score of computers.
“It’s a beautiful building, isn’t it?” Harring-Marro said on a recent afternoon as she and Fox-Ford gave a brief tour of the school. “It really has a lot of personality.”
It is still relatively small, but it is also one of the only gathering places for the township’s approximately 650 residents. On Wednesday, parents and grandparents came for a Thanksgiving feast in the cafeteria, something that wasn’t possible in the drafty, moss-covered schoolhouse built in 1919 that still sits next door.
The township now uses that as its town hall. Another building constructed in 1969 also housed a few grades on the new school’s site, but it was in even worse condition and came down to make room for a new parking lot.
Mayor Dudley Lewis briefly taught in that building before eventually taking a position at Mainland Regional High School as a shop teacher. He said the cramped, leaky structure was universally described as a terrible place to learn. It flooded when it rained, and the heating system would routinely break and fill the school with smoke.
At the same time, he said some people in the township have started grumbling that they regret building the new school, saying it may have been a waste if the district simply does not have the money to keep it open.
The Board of Education has several upcoming meetings scheduled to discuss the situation, including its next regular board meeting Nov. 29. That same night, the Pinelands Municipal Council will meet in Weymouth Township, where the loss of state aid to compensate for tax-exempt land will be a hot topic.
Lewis said he hopes to keep that funding intact and plans to meet with the school board in upcoming weeks to discuss how it will affect them.
Fox-Ford, who has a daughter in sixth grade who now goes to Mullica and a son in the Green Bank School, said they are pursuing every option they can to keep the school open, but admitted their situation is dire.
“That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?” she said, looking at Harring-Marro, who solemnly nodded. “But it’s the truth.”
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