In an effort to work with the Concerned Citizens For A Better Hopatcong Education, school board members requested a meeting with the group to go through the budget and answer questions regarding their concerns.
The meeting was set for Thursday, June 12, after press time.
As a resident of Hopatcong who has served on the Hopatcong Board of Education for seven years, township council for 15 years and mayor of Hopatcong for eight years, Hopatcong BOE President Cliff Lundin is all too familiar with the increased taxes and says “I’m absolutely sympathetic to them.”
Lundin, whose taxes went up 17 percent, says, “two years ago property evaluations affected everyone; they’re paying much higher taxes.” At the same time, “we have to provide a certain level of education.”
To get Hopatcong on the right tract, the school district hired a new superintendent of schools two years ago.
Since Cynthia Randina has come on board as the new superintendent of Hopatcong Borough Schools, the goals have been “to improve test scores, improve our ranking, improve the quality of education.” She has mapped out a three-year strategic plan with new initiatives to get the district on tract.
After examining what the district had to offer, Randina says “I was able to see why the Hopatcong school district was ranked so low” and thus identified several needs. She found that students were leaving the district because of courses not being offered, so decided that adding new electives to the high school could retain students, as well as more rigorous programs to keep high performers from going elsewhere, and to return freshman sports.
Our vision is “to improve our offerings and return more students,” says Randina.
In regards to the school budget, state law allows school districts to increase their budgets by two percent, but also allows for exceptions if there is a cap bank, meaning districts can use “underspent” monies from years before.
The Hopatcong BOE decided to take from its cap bank this year and thus passed a 2014/2015 school year budget that carries at 2.67 percent budget increase. The $36.2 million budget increases the tax rate to the average homeowner by a $105 per year.
This “increase was absolutely approved by state law,” says Lundin. The nine member “board was split,” he says, meaning four members wanted to increase the final budget even higher. “A 2.67 increase was a compromise.
According to Lundin, most of the two percent cap went toward salary increases and eight percent went toward increases in health insurance.
Board members decided to use the cap bank to implement full day kindergarten for the fall. This change from half day to full day kindergarten tacts on $250,000 to the budget, he explains.
“Students need intensive literary instruction starting at the kindergarten level to help students perform on grade level by grade three,” says Randina. This should help raise standardized test scores.
In looking at the budget, Lundin says “everything we’ve done puts a de-emphasis on facilities and emphasis on education.”
With that comes the need for more computers at the elementary schools since the state has mandated that computers be used by students during testing; a new testing program in which students and staff need to be ready; and an increase of 10 Advanced Placement courses and electives at the high school.
The district has also hired some teacher coaches to work with other teachers to train them on the new curriculum coming in the fall.
“Our teachers are very qualified but we analyzed the curriculum and noticed the curriculum is not in line with the new core standards,” explains Randina. As a result, two supplemental teachers were hired- one in math/science and one in humanities, so teachers will be prepared on the common core curriculum.
Other hirees include four coaches- two at the middle school level and two at the elementary level- to assist with common core and the new Park Assessments.
With advancements in technology, a new computer literacy teacher has been hired at the elementary level since student will be required to take the new Park Assessments on a computer.
A new Spanish teacher at the elementary level has also been hired.
Language arts literacy and math will be increased from one period to two periods at the elementary and middle school levels.
A new SAT preparatory course will be offered to sophomores and juniors at no charge.
A Child Development program will return to the high school two days a week to offer students hands-on experience in working with little ones.
“Because of rigorous assessments coming down the pipe in the spring,” two additional computer labs have been added at the high school, as well as upgrades in “our infrastructure,” says Randina.
Regarding the concern for decreased enrollment, Lundin says enrollment across Sussex County is down 21 percent because “kids aren’t there.” Some have gone to choice schools.
Lundin says the Hopatcong School District will be applying to also become a school for School Choice to attract more students.
With the decision three years ago to eliminate freshman sports, many eighth graders who were going to be incoming freshman decided to transfer schools. The BOE decided to reinstitute freshman sports to keepHopatcong students in their district, says Lundin.
The budget also allocates monies for a Teachers Academy and a new program STEAM, (Science, technology, engineering, art and music) to provide a greater selection of courses and attract students “to come back.”
The Teachers Academy will prepare students who have a desire to go into teaching as a career. In four years, Randina says one million vacancies in the teaching profession will become available. The teaching preparation program will allow students in Hopatcong “to help them get ahead,” earn credits in teaching and add to their transcripts when applying for college.
Despite the decreased enrollment, board members are reluctant to close any of the schools in the district because of the number of vacant houses in the district that are currently in foreclosure.
“We hear once those houses are back on the market, we will have more children going to the schools,” says Lundin. With the school buildings that date back to 1970 and earlier, “if we close the facility it will be extremely difficult to reopen it,” because of the building code standards maintained by the state,” says Lundin.
Based on a study conducted a few years ago, four classrooms are vacant at the middle school, says Lundin.
“Yes there may be some excess space but not enough to close a building,” says Lundin.
In regards to Hopatcong’s ranking in the NJ Monthly, Lundin says AP courses and elective course are considered in the ranking. Three to four years ago, major budget cuts were approved that cut AP courses and electives.
To encourage more students to take AP courses, “We are offering to pay for the students to take the AP exam,” says Randina.
“The state does not rank the schools,” says Lundin. “Individual publications use their own criteria to rank the schools. Anything that goes into the ranking process, we are trying to identify.”
The board invited “anyone from the community” to participate in a strategic plan to work together” to identify weaknesses.” Fifty people worked on a strategic plan this year, which is supposed to be adopted this month.
On a different level, the state board of education has changed curriculum and testing to stay aligned with the “No Child Left Behind Act;” and the common core curriculum being mandated by 42 states to make the United States “more competitive in the world of education” and to make the high school diploma the same across the nation, he explains.
Another state law involves changes in the teaching evaluation system in which teachers will be evaluated by their performance of the students. Teachers who are not effective, can be fired in two years, he says. In order to prepare teachers for this change a number of professional development teachers have been hired in Hopatcong to prepare teachers on the new curriculum.
There have been “so many tremendous changes,” says Lundin. “All these changes are hitting at the same time. This is the year everything comes into fruition. There’s only so much we can change at one time.” To keep up, “it takes money.”
While many have criticized the education their children are receiving, not all graduates are struggling.
Lundin’s son graduated from Hopatcong High School two years ago, attended an honors college in Floridaand plans to attend Oxford in the fall. “I know he got a good education. Could it have been better? Absolutely.
“Our graduates can produce,” he says. “Hopatcong does produce good graduates.”
Randina says, “We have a staff that’s very qualified. I do not feel that the schools are broken. There’s tremendous effort to improve.”
One area that needs improvement is the supervision support, she says. Hopatcong schools “did not have enough supervisors. You have a principal and a vice principal and no supervision.” Randina says there needs to be department lead teachers at the high school level to provide coordination and direction to the departments.
“People need support, teachers need support,” says Randina. “They need ongoing professional development. Curriculum needs a lot of work. We did not have supervisors to get that done; supervision, ample materials to prepare them for college and careers.
I do believe we will show progress,” says Randina. I just don’t think our basics were here.”
Randina does “encourage all members to be proud of our schools. The community should support our endeavors as well.” Based on teacher surveys, “The staff, administrators and teachers are very energized by all the programs being offered. They feel supported. They have an eagerness to grow professionally.”
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