The Secaucus Town Council had held the first of many special meetings with the Board of Education to discuss issues pertaining to the school district.
This comes after the council debated moving the board elections back to April to allow voters a say on the budget, but decided not to act, keeping the elections in November for now. Instead, town officials sought to meet with the board to discuss the matter, among others. In the past, the town has held joint meetings between the entities to discuss topics that may involve them both.
At the meeting on Feb. 3, officials talked about how to solve overcrowding issues that may arise in the district in the future with the completion of redevelopments that are currently under construction.
The size of the district
Board of Education President Jack McStowe first sought to address the size of the school district. The schools in the district include: Clarendon School for students up to grade five; Huber Street School for students up to grade five; Millridge School for pre-k; Secaucus Middle School for grades six through eight, which is part of the same complex as Secaucus High School for grades nine through 12.
“I’m hearing things that some people are saying the district is overcrowded,” McStowe said.
Mayor Michael Gonnelli quickly retorted that the district has less kids now than five years ago. There are 2,175 students now, as opposed to 2,217 in 2017.
“I guess kids are going to private schools, going to charter schools, homeschooling, or whatever,” Gonnelli said. “So we have less kids.”
Acting Superintendent of Schools Daniela Riser said that recently the district saw a drop off in the number of students during hybrid instruction last year.
“We had a little drop off during COVID,” Riser said. “Over the 2021 year, we saw a drop off because some families, I believe, did not want their kid on a hybrid schedule and half-day schooling.”
Gonnelli said that he was looking at the overall numbers since 2017, which show a decline in the number of students since then. McStowe said the problem wasn’t necessarily the overall number of students.
“It’ the distribution of the kids, how many are in each school,” McStowe said. “The overall number may have reduced but the number of students at Huber Street might have actually increased.”
Adjusting enrollment at schools
First Ward Councilman Robert Costantino questioned if the district could adjust the boundaries of where students would attend each school to address the situation at Huber Street School.
“I’m sure [Huber Street School] is within guidelines, but I’m sure it’s more packed than Clarendon School,” Costantino said.
McStowe said the council determines which school students will attend based on where they live in town.
In response, Gonnelli said that Huber Street School has 609 students this year, less than the 624 in 2017, noting that the number of students had decreased in that time period. Enrollment at Clarendon School has also decreased.
“It seems to me like the numbers are pretty much on par,” Gonnelli said.
Gonnelli suggested the possibility of shifting students from Huber Street School to Clarendon School to balance out the number of students. Riser said that the district already has about 23 students who are attending Clarendon School instead of Huber Street School.
“I do think some more students can fit in the Clarendon School right now than they can at Huber Street School,” Riser said.
McStowe also pointed out that the number Gonnelli was referring to may not be the most accurate since sixth graders are no longer present in the elementary schools. Preschool and kindergarten students are also no longer in the schools since the district opened Millridge Academy around 2016. Gonnelli retorted that “it seems to have balanced out.”
Officials also discussed the impact of future redevelopment in town and its impact on the district.
“We have a lot of development going on,” Gonnelli said. “It’s all under control though.”
Gonnelli touted a tract of land in town that was recently purchased for approximately $70 million by Hartz Mountain Industries for redevelopment.
“The Lori tract is the largest tract in the town that’s undeveloped,” Jeffas said. “If a housing project went there, there would have been thousands of units. Hartz bought that and the Mayor and the Council told them they would not support the consideration of any housing on that.”
“They’re going to put up a huge 50,000 square foot warehouse,” Gonnelli said. “Originally, that was for housing. We said no to that.”
Gonnelli said that all new housing and affordable housing projects are located at the Xchange. Jeffas said that some of the developments that would impact schools include projects under construction at the Xchange but won’t be completed for another two years.
“That was approved under the prior administration,” Gonnelli said. ”I voted against it when I was a commissioner… But it’s here now. For us, it’s a great tax ratable.”
Another would be the recently completed Pearl complex. Approximately 14 students are estimated to be added once occupied, which falls under the part of the district for the Huber Street School for elementary school students.
“[The Pearl] is going to start occupying sometime in March or April,” Jeffas said. “116 units are there.”
Gonnelli said that development was constructed under a “concrete plan” in an area the town didn’t want for anything other than residential zoning.
Affordable units yield students
According to McStowe, the district had done a feasibility study years ago and determined that the buildings under construction at the Xchange would add 120 to 130 students once completed and occupied.
Costantino suggested the board prepare for the influx of kids in the district, and asked what its plans were. McStowe said the board is contemplating a few ideas, but currently engaging with the community for feedback.
“One idea would be redistricting. Students currently going to one school, might go to another. Another idea would be prioritized schools. One would be kindergarten to second grade, the other grades three to five. So these are ideas we talked about.”
Prior to the pandemic, the district consulted an architect, with the intention of potentially constructing another school. When Gonnelli asked McStowe if the district needed another school yet, he said not yet.
“Would I like a new school? Yes,” McStowe said. “But for a referendum, I think we still have to look at numbers and we have to look at projections before we say we need x millions of dollars.”
The district also had the architect look at what could be improved upon or expanded internally before constructing a new school. But the board will need to act in some way eventually, with McStowe estimating that Huber Street School will be overcapacity anywhere from 2023 to 2025. Jeffas said that the town worked with Xchange to try to delay the construction of residential units that would attract students to the district.
“A lot of children come out of the affordable units. So Xchange agreed to their current building with no affordables in it and to handle affordables in later housing. Now, with the architect, we have six years to plan for 150 new kids. So they worked with us to kind of slow the flow of kids into the system based on what the Mayor and Council want to achieve.”
The conversation concluded on an open ended note, but the council and board agreed to meet again regularly, whether that be monthly or quarterly. For more information, check the calendar webpage at secaucusnj.gov.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.