By Anne Forline
Gloucester City News
Prior to beginning their meeting, the Gloucester City Board of Education (BOE) paused for a moment of silence in remembrance of the 9/11 victims. At the meeting, school choice was the hot topic on the minds of many parents and concerned citizens. Several parents addressed the School Board and School Superintendent Joseph Rafferty about the issue. Rafferty said he recommends that the Board form a committee and listen to community feedback to see if being a school choice district would benefit Gloucester City.
“When I was in Mt. Ephraim, this took a period of time. What we did first was form a committee to review the positive and negative aspects of school choice to see if it was a favorable move for the community,” Rafferty said.
“ I believe in a community approach in the decision making process,” he said, adding that the School District will review all of the financial implications to see if school choice is even feasible for the school district.
“Alternative funding is essential for a school district to look for in order to support its current programs,” Rafferty said. “But what else is important is that the community be aware of all such issues and concerns and they are to have their input.”
However, Rafferty confirmed that nothing has een finalized regarding the school choice.
“At this time, the school district has not made any decision whatsoever. We are just acquiring facts to make a sound decision,” he said.
David Bathurst, a parent, asked, “Are we looking to send our kids out in order to generate revenue to bring other students here?”
In response, Rafferty sought to allay parents’ concerns and also dispel many misconceptions about school choice.
School choice allows students from all over the state an opportunity to attend a school that is accepted by the Department of Education as school choice, he said.
That includes Gloucester’s students. Gloucester’s students already have the option of attending a participating choice school, he noted.
Having served as the superintendent of Mt. Ephraim, a school choice district, Rafferty said, “When I was in Mt. Ephraim, we were able to keep our tax rate of zero for one year as a result of school choice.”
Citing next-door neighbor, Brooklawn, Rafferty said, “Brooklawn was the first school district that participated in school choice. That is a 10-year success story.”
As for how many students would be able to leave or come in to the district, Rafferty said there is a cap on both.
Regarding himself a proponent of “plan, plan, plan,” Rafferty said, “It would be negligent of me if I didn’t see if making Gloucester a school choice district was a good opportunity for us.”
He said one of his main concerns is to look at alternative means of funding.
“What happens in the event that one day, the state comes back to us and says our revenue sources are dried up and our funds aren’t there?”
Rafferty said that school choice would allow the district to fill space, but not overcrowd classrooms and hire more teachers.
“I am not looking to bring in discipline problems, to enlarge classroom size or bring in students whose educational needs we cannot meet,” he said.
“When I was in Mt. Ephraim, school choice didn’t change the environment, it enhanced it. Bringing in quality students will help maintain programs,” he added.
Bathurst asked about other towns being able to afford to send their students to Gloucester.
“The money does not come from the towns, it comes from the state,” Rafferty said.
As for the quality of education that students receive in Gloucester, he said, “We want to make sure what we have here, in terms of our programs, stays here.”
Rafferty explained why potential students and their parents would be attracted to the Gloucester City School District.
“Parents are looking for a place to drop off their kids so the kids feel safe. We have so much available to attract potential students – band, arts, athletics and a safe environment,” he said. “I challenge anyone to come in to our schools and watch and see the quality of education we offer and see what our staff is doing. I am proud of the tremendous product we turn out.”
Regarding the decision making process that would determine which students would be allowed to attend Gloucester’s schools, Rafferty said the school district has the option of selecting which students they will take.
“I get to select the best of the best,” he stated.
There is also a rigorous screening process, which includes interviewing potential students and their parents and going back and conferring with the sending district.
“We have high academic and behavioral guidelines. If the students are not following these guidelines, they go back,” he noted.
“If that happened, how long would it take to send someone back?” Bathurst asked.
“In a reasonable amount of time,” said Rafferty, adding that he understood the parents’ concerns and assured them that this is not something that is going to happen immediately.
Board Member Jackie Borger said, “In fact, we are nearly too late for 2013-2014.”
Board Member Kathleen McHugh said, “The first thing we want to accomplish is to get the new middle school built.”
In other matters, all business on the agenda passed.
The School Board okayed a motion to approve the Camden County Cooperative Purchasing Agreement for the 2012-13 school year, including the purchase of office supplies.
A contract with Kennedy Health Systems for drug/urine testing for the 2012-13 school year was also approved.
The Board voted to approve a contract for the Camden County Educational Services commission to provide two part-time teachers per week for IDEA students at Gloucester Catholic for the 2012-13 school year.
A $15,981 contract with Robotech Educational Services was approved, and the company will provide an after-school Lego Robotics Program from October 15, 2012 through May 14, 2013.
This program is for grades 4-6 at Mary Ethel Costello School and grades 7-8 at the Junior High School. It will be paid from the 21st Century Grant funds.
The Board voted and approved a motion for permission to apply for the Excellent Teachers for New Jersey (EE4NJ) Pilot Program Teacher Effectiveness Evaluation System Grant in the amount of $86,000 to facilitate the implementation of the McRel Teacher Evaluation System.
All student action and personnel items as listed were approved. In addition to workshops and curriculum as listed, it also included the hiring of a part-time art teacher at the Highland Park Program for Success.
Bruce Darrow, the School Board representative from Brooklawn, recommended that this approval should include a cap for the maximum number of hours per week for this position.
Principal Victoria Ernst confirmed that the position would be for 18-25 hours per week.
The board voted to approve the salary of $35 per hour, with the hours worked not to exceed 24 ½ hours per week.
Rafferty said that document requests made in accordance with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) were usually accommodated by the requestor paying a fee and then the document was sent to them.
Now, requests are being made for documents to be faxed or scanned. Rafferty stated that he is reviewing this matter with an attorney to see what the district can charge for scanning and faxing while complying with OPRA requests.
Board Member Bruce Marks said the playground equipment at Cold Springs School will be replaced and work should begin in about two weeks.
“The equipment has reached its expectancy. It’s approximately 15 years old and is only supposed to last about 12 years,” Marks said.
Board Member Adam Baker said he has been in contact with the police department about hosting a “Bike Rodeo.”
He also asked if all of the cameras in the schools are updated and working properly.
Rafferty responded that he would get back to him.
Board Member Gina Levins said that report cards will be revised because of the new reading program.
The BOE’s will meet Thursday, October 4 at 7 p.m. (caucus) and again on Tuesday, October 9, at 7 p.m. for its regular meeting. Both will take place at the Gloucester City High School Media Center.