Education Equity or Neighborhood Schools? The Reconfiguration Controversy

In a recent River Edge School Board meeting, a fierce lack of consensus dominated the debate surrounding the proposed reconfiguration of local schools. The board approved the reconfiguration plan, sparking both support and outcry and triggering fresh questions about the district’s future.

The proposal involves making Cherry Hill School for grades pre-kindergarten through third and Roosevelt Elementary School for grades four through six, effective with the 2024-2025 school year. The superintendent’s justification for this proposal included perceived positive educational outcomes and the community’s financial capacity to support the district’s services and programs.

Critically, the reconfiguration also claims to better integrate students across the school district and ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to learn, instead of having one school be higher-performing for a limited number of students. This was echoed by Cindy Bequeath, a long-time resident of River Edge. She voiced her support, saying, “Our school board’s responsibilities provide a path to the highest level of education for each child living in our town. Ensuring our district is in compliance with the state is vital as well as mandatory, and I believe that’s what you all have done with this process and this reconfiguration.”

Megan Medeiros also voiced support for the reconfiguration plan, stating: “I just wanted to take the time to actually commend the board and the superintendent. You are tasked with facing difficult issues that have been facing our district for decades. You actually are choosing to try to address it. I’m only asking that we not slow it up anymore.”

However, the decision has been met with vigorous dissent from other community members who worry about the logistical, environmental, and financial implications of the plan, alongside concerns about its potential effects on children’s mental health and social interactions.

Addressing the practical concerns raised by some attendees, Bequeath added, “River Edge is less than two square miles in area, and the two schools are only a mile apart. So I’m not understanding how it’s different from when your child now has to go, potentially you have two children or three children, and now your child has to go to not only a middle school, maybe a high school, and you’ve also got to get someone to an elementary school. You’re still going to have to make the time to get to all those schools. You just have to make it work.”

“The proposed reconfiguration plan remains a significant point of contention among members of the River Edge community,” said one attendee, reflecting a strong sentiment at the meeting.

The proposed reconfiguration faced particular scrutiny over perceived transparency issues and the board’s perceived lack of consideration for community sentiments. Matthew Markman was vocal in his disapproval, emphasizing, “What your constituents in River Edge are telling you is, we want neighborhood schools.”

Echoing Markman, Carmen Folden read from a letter co-signed by many residents demanding a non-binding referendum. The letter condemned the board’s abrupt scheduling of the reconfiguration vote and expressed skepticism about the legal advice stating the board and the borough have no jurisdiction to place a referendum on the ballot.

The debate over the reconfiguration ended with a vote approving the proposal, marking a significant decision for the district. The reconfiguration is set to begin with the 2024-2025 school year. Despite the approval, the discord evidenced during the meeting suggests that the community debate over this decision is far from over. Yet, as Bequeath put it, “isn’t giving all children the best educational opportunities the top priority for all of us?”

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