Taxes are up, enrollment is down and school ratings are at an all time low in Hopatcong- three strikes and counting is enough for a group of concerned citizens to get involved and try to improve the system.
A core group of about 10 people organized a group- Concerned Citizens For A Better Hopatcong Education (CCBHE) about a year ago- and a couple few hundred have been staying updated and commenting on Facebook. The group was planning a public meeting and one with the Hopatcong School Board of Education to discuss concerns and work toward solutions.
While the schools in Hopatcong have a history of lower ratings compared to other school districts in the state, residents were stunned when a recent assessment drove property values down, especially those living on the lake, while taxes spiraled out of control for some.
“We are trying to change things; we’re trying to take the high road,” says Sarah Schindelar, co-founder of the Concerned Citizens For A Better Hopatcong Education. “We want our kids to have good schools, to get a good education. We would like everyone to come together and work as one to make the schools a better place” for everybody from students, to teachers, to parents.
”We are getting involved to find out what’s going on under the hood at Hopatcong schools,” says Peter Karpiak, another co-founder of CCBHE along with Jerry Hampton.
The group formed after residents were hit by a much greater tax bill and started asking questions.
“We had a fit,” says Schindelar, a Hopatcong resident who has lived on the lake for the past 18 years. The recent assessment has lowered her property by 16 percent but “when they adjusted the tax rate my taxes went up 30 percent.”
When residents questioned town officials about the tax hike they learned that 60 percent of the taxes go toward the schools.
“We said, ‘hey wait a minute,’” says Schindelar, owner and veterinarian of Mt. Olive Veterinary Hospitalin Budd Lake. “We don’t even send our kids to these schools and we are still writing these big checks. It’s not right, every year the school board keeps raising their budgets. No one is getting value for their money.
“We all of a sudden started paying attention that the system is broken,” continues Schindelar, who has three kids- ages 11, 14 and 16- but sent them out of district to Choice and Charter school programs. “People are waking up to what’s going on and they’re not liking it. No one minds paying the taxes if parents are sending their kids to school in town and getting a great education.”
Schindelar sent her kids to schools out of district because “we weren’t very happy with what we perceived the quality of education to be in town.” Like others, she decided to send them to choice and charter schools. Parents who choose this route say they are getting a better education for their child, but at the same time they miss out in other areas such as social benefits and convenience.
Sending her kids to school in town “would have fostered a better sense of community to them,” says Schindelar, by being involved in sports and social activities with peers in their own community. “They don’t have a bunch of buddies in town to hang out with. My husband and I decided that an education is more important than their peer groups.”
Karpiak, on the other hand, who has two kids- eighth and fifth grade-did give the Hopatcong schools a try but says that his oldest son “wasn’t challenged” and was not “learning anything new” after coming from a two-year Montessori school his pre-school years. He was also discouraged when “only eight or nine” parents attended the parent-teachers meeting.
So he too chose to send his kids to choice and charter schools.
Although “it’s a real disruption in your life,” from social aspects to sports and driving out of town for school events, Karpiak says “It was any place but Hopatcong.”
Karpiak, who has lived there for 25 years, says he did not fight the system then because with taxes that were manageable he had choices.
“When you are only paying $9,000 in taxes and you have options you don’t pay as much attention to it,” says Karpiak. But when his taxes jump from that $9,000 in 1996 to $30,000 in 2014, one gets “a wake-up call.”
While it’s too late for her kids to get the benefit of a good education in town, Schindelar says it is not too late for other kids.
Pro-active in her efforts, Schindelar and Glenda Hampton, entered the board of education election as write-in candidates in 2013 five days before the vote. Although they received 700 votes, they were not elected. She may run next year, but in the meantime was instrumental in helping to form the concerned citizens group.
The group’s action plan is to encourage “Excellent and meaningful education in a fiscally responsible manner. We just want our kids to overall get a better education; to have the schools function in a way that’s appropriate to the enrollment. There’s just not that many kids out there anymore.”
Criticisms have stemmed from lack of parent involvement, decreasing enrollment while the school budget continues to rise; underutilized usage of the five school buildings; poor ratings and student performance.
“Everybody pays taxes; taxes will never go away,” says Schindelar, “but the amount we pay to the schools, you have kids leaving in droves, there are less kids out there.” With five school buildings in town, Schindelar says “we don’t need five, we need three. Spend the money on the kids; don’t spend the money on the buildings.”
The group leaders have hired three researchers to seek the facts, and will be conducting a forensic audit by certified public accountants to review the school board’s budget and spending and “go outside on a broader perspective on what can be done,” according to Karpiak, who works as a senior executive in human resources.
“We got piles of people doing work for us,” says Schindelar. “There are people on the board who don’t have time for that; they have good intentions, but they have jobs” too.
The goal is “to find out the facts, present them to everybody,” says Schindelar. “This isn’t working, what are we going to do? We need to change it for the kids. You have to take the high road; maybe clean house a little bit; get some new blood.”
According to their research, Hopatcong is ranked 289 out of 328 public schools in the state, based on a ranking published in the NJ Monthly. In 2008, Hopatcong was ranked 174 out of 316; and in 2010, 200 out of 322.
“It has clearly been going the wrong way,” says Karpiak. The Star Ledger ranked it a D, out of A B C D. “You have a school system going in the wrong direction.”
From research gathered, the CCBHE maintains that “Hopatcong pays the most for the worst schools,” based on a summary issued by the group. “This is a story about a school district out of control, where enrollment has fallen consistently for ten years,” the summary states. “It is a school district in a working class town that’s among the most expensive in Sussex County and the state, yet has a high school that ranks below Newark and Camden.”
Some of the facts in the summary state that the district has lost one-third of its student body since 2005; school building utilization rates are in the 50 percent range “but the school board is giving no consideration to closing one and consolidating into the remaining two.” Likewise, the middle school and high school have declined in enrollment to the point they could be consolidated into one building.
The Board recently passed a 2.67 percent budget increase over the objections of town residents while “actual enrollment is down seven percent this year.”
The summary maintains that “Although the schools in Hopatcong are the worst performing in SussexCounty, they are among the most expensive. While enrollment has dropped 33 percent in the last nine years, the budget has risen 18 percent and the cost per child surged 64 percent. It costs $20,180 per student to educate a child in Hopatcong; compared to the neighboring school district, Roxbury Township, which spends $18,052. Hopatcong is in the top quarter percentile of the most expensive districts in SussexCounty, on a cost-per-pupil basis.
The State of NJ School Performance Report 2012-13 found the high school to be “significantly lagging” in comparison to its peer group. The high school is rated in the bottom third percentile of its peer group in language arts, math, and academic achievement and the Middle School’s “academic performance to be in the bottom six percentile of academic achievement compared to its peers.”
The CCBHE was planning to meet with the school board on June 12.
“Our purpose is to make it clear to the board on what they should be thinking about,” says Karpiak. “We came together as a group. People are frustrated. They are failing all the citizens and all of the students. There’s just a lot of things they need to understand.”
Karpiak says the “problems go back years and years that this group (BOE) inherited. The board doesn’t have a board plan. They have no planning. Enrollment is down but cost is going up and up.”
The next school board meeting was set for Monday, June 23. For the past few meetings, hundreds of concerned residents have been lining up for hours to challenge the board on decisions made.
The school board president and superintendent of schools have commented on issues being raised. Refer to sidebar.
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