BRIGANTINE — As enrollment has dropped under 500 and state aid has decreased, one school may be all that’s needed for the island’s elementary and middle school students.
The school board unanimously decided to move ahead with consolidating its schools next year after several years of discussion, Superintendent Michelle Cappelluti said.
“The thought at that time was with decreasing enrollment the district could save on transportation costs if there was one start time for the students. When we looked at the enrollment again over the past year, it made good sense in planning for the future to consolidate the two schools,” Cappelluti said.
Enrollment in the kindergarten-through-eighth grade district this year fell to 466 from 544 the previous year. In 2010-11, there were nearly 800 students. These figures do not include preschool enrollment, which expanded this year due to a state grant. High school students in Brigantine attend Atlantic City through a tuition-based sending relationship.
The loss of state aid also played a role in the district’s decision to consolidate, Cappelluti said. Under the school funding laws amended in July, aid to Brigantine decreased this year and will continue to decrease over the next six years because of the decreased enrollment.
School consolidation is not uncommon in the region, which has seen student populations shrink in the past decade. Some area districts that have eliminated buildings due to low enrollment include Margate, which closed its Union Avenue School in 2010, and Washington Township, Burlington County, which closed its Green Bank school two years ago and entered into a sending-receiving relationship with Mullica Township. Similarly, Sea Isle City closed its school more than five years ago and began sending all of its dwindling student population to neighboring Ocean City.
Avalon and Stone Harbor, which share the distinction of being two of the smallest school districts in the state, maintain separate boards and have a sending-receiving relationship in which students attend elementary at Stone Harbor and middle school in Avalon.
Brigantine’s two schools, located on Evans Boulevard, are connected but were built and operated separately. The portion of the school known as the North School for middle school students, built in 1960, is bordered by Lafayette Place. Elementary students attend the newer portion of the school on the northern portion of the property, which opened in 1996.
Under the consolidation, Cappelluti said, both schools would remain in place but operate as one, which means some rooms in the buildings would go unused, like one of the two cafeterias and some classrooms. The district’s architect is doing a study on utilization of classrooms and looking into who owns the land where the school is built, since there is no record of a deed held by the school.
“What we’re trying to do is operate more cohesively because were smaller,” the superintendent said.
She said the district is also in the process of building a new main entrance to the school, a project that started last summer.
“Our new security vestibule will have students and visitors basically coming in one entrance of the school and parent pickup, drop-off as well,” Cappelluti said.
She said the consolidation will result in one school schedule, one Title I plan, greater articulation between and among grade levels, and fewer transportation costs. District programs for the students will remain in place, she said. Some staff will be cut through attrition, but there may be some layoffs.
“With decreased enrollment affecting our state aid, eliminating staff could potentially happen. We are currently looking at the possibility of doing an enrollment projection through Stockton University’s (Southern Regional Institute & Educational Technology Training Center),” Cappelluti said.
Mayor Andy Simpson, who appoints the school board members in the Type I district, said Monday he has asked for the business administrator at the school to come up with figures on how much savings the consolidation will yield.
Simpson said he addressed the consolidation at a recent City Council meeting, to dispel rumors the city wanted to demolish the old building, sell the land and lay off teachers. Simpson said he would like to see positions cut through attrition and added he wouldn’t sell land in case it was needed for future use.
“The most important thing is the kids. We can save all the money in the world, but if we hurt the education of our kids, that doesn’t help the future of Brigantine or our kids,” Simpson said.
Cappelluti said she was not sure how the consolidation will impact next year’s budget because of the decreased state aid.