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Children head for their bus at Sea Isle City Public School on Sept. 16.

The 10 smallest school districts in the state each have fewer than 100 students. Seven of them, all in South Jersey, are grappling with shrinking enrollment, aging buildings and rising property taxes.

Some have even considered closing.

Doing so, however, has been universally difficult, for both legal and emotional reasons. Closing a school symbolizes the end of a long tradition. Fond memories — from a child’s first friends to the annual holiday pageant or the smell of spaghetti for lunch every Wednesday — are imbedded in the community psyche.

“I grew up in an era when you were taught that everybody pays to educate the youth because the youth is your future,” said Stacy Olandt, 64, of Sea Isle City, who opposes a plan to close the school she once attended and send all students to neighboring Ocean City. “I also believe that a small elementary school is the hallmark of a community.”

But as property taxes rise and state efforts to control them restrict budget growth, pragmatism replaces nostalgia. When class sizes shrink to single digits, and an entire school has fewer than 100 students, the benefits to a child’s social development are questioned.

Avalon, Sea Isle, Stone Harbor, Long Beach Island, West Cape May and Washington Township, in that order, all had the highest per-pupil costs of traditional public schools last year in The Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area of Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, southern Ocean and eastern Burlington counties. These districts have some of the highest per-pupil costs in the state. Each has seen its overall enrollment decline dramatically over the past decade, driving up the per-student cost.

Beach Haven, tied with Avalon last year as the ninth-smallest district in the state, had the eighth-highest per-pupil cost in The Press region. Cumberland County’s Greenwich Township, the sixth-smallest district in the state, had the 13th-highest per-pupil cost.

Avalon budgeted nearly $40,000 to educate each of its 75 students last year. Sea Isle paid nearly $34,000, and Stone Harbor paid more than $27,000. The average budgeted cost in the state to educate a child in small, kindergarten-through-sixth- or eighth-grade districts is less than $12,700.

The small districts that share these problems are often found either along the shore, where housing is priced out of the range of most families, or in rural areas with small tax bases that leave homeowners with heavy tax burdens.

Divisive decisions

Plans to close or merge schools have been discussed this year on Long Beach Island, in Sea Isle, and in Washington Township, Burlington County. All remain controversial and have created fierce divisions.

Last year, Avalon’s and Stone Harbor’s school districts agreed to share students, sending all students in grades kindergarten through fourth to Stone Harbor, and all fifth- through eighth-graders to Avalon. Some residents objected, concerned about losing their local identity, Board President John Atwood said at the time. But the plan allowed both schools to remain open.

West Cape May disregarded a recommendation to send students to Cape May, and instead started welcoming students from outside its borders through the state Public School Choice program. The first 16 choice students increased the prekindergarten-through-sixth-grade school’s enrollment to 58 students this year.

“The value of small schools in general, in my opinion, is they provide an environment for children to grow their roots,” said Lynn Bowlby, president of the West Cape May School District Board of Education. “Some children thrive in those environments — those small, nurturing, familylike environments.”

Elsewhere, rural school districts such as Cumberland County’s Greenwich and Stow Creek townships are maintaining their tiny class sizes, but neighboring Shiloh had to close its only school in 2006 after 140 years of education. When Shiloh’s Board of Education voted to send students to a neighboring town, a handful of people clapped, but most of the room fell silent. A few people cried.

Small schools have taken other steps to share administrators and services or reduce positions to part time. Grades are combined in West Cape May and Washington Township so that one teacher teaches two grades. Sea Isle and Washington Township have begun sending middle school students to Ocean City and Mullica Township, respectively. Long Beach Island Consolidated has discussed selling one school to rehabilitate another.

State regulations

But even when there is a will to close a school, state regulations make it difficult.

School officials in Washington Township and Sea Isle have already attempted to close their schools. But under state tenure law, if a local school board closes a school and sends its students to another district,  the district receiving those students must hire the teachers from the other district. Administrators in the Ocean City and Mullica school districts have said multiple times that they cannot handle the extra staffing costs of new employees from Sea Isle and Washington Township.

Earlier this year, Washington Township municipal government officials and Sea Isle’s Board of Education requested that the state Commissioner of Education’s office close their sole elementary schools, since that would circumvent the tenure law. This summer, Washington received a letter from the commissioner’s office saying it would not act on the request to shut down Green Bank Elementary.

“At this point we’ll have to close it by attrition,” said Mayor Dudley Lewis, meaning that teacher retirements in Mullica and Washington would have to occur before Washington Township could send more grades to Mullica. “It’s going to take a couple of years.”

Sea Isle still awaits a reply. If the state approves the board’s request, the school’s staff would be laid off when the school closes.

“That’s why it was not a decision that was made lightly, or hastily,” said Sea Isle board solicitor Mark Toscano. “But looking at the numbers, there were not many alternatives.”

Public opposition

Some schools are still fighting to survive. Last year, rural Estell Manor’s voters rejected a school property-tax increase of nearly 25 cents, sending it to City Council to decrease. But a flood of teachers, parents, and students came to City Hall to protest, fearing any budget decrease could close the school. Council bowed to the pressure and left the budget unchanged.

In Sea Isle, Brian Heritage was one of many parents who spoke out against the board’s plans. He also went to Sea Isle City Elementary, and now so do his two children.

He said the school not only provides a nice place to learn, it also has special meaning to the small oceanfront community: It is a civic center where locals gather at after-school events, and there is a strong psychological connection that ties generations together.

That, he said, is worth the investment.

“You can never pay too much for the education of a young mind, period,” he said. “All it takes is for a kid to be successful in something, and everything you’ve done has been successful.”

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