Chesilhurst asks: Where to educate its children?

Posted: August 11, 2011

Two years after Chesilhurst's lone school shut down, Carla Ortiz is left to guess where her children will attend class from one year to the next. Next fall, she's heard, they could be sent to the Berlin School District, they could still be in Winslow, or they might even be back in Chesilhurst.

"They never should have closed the school," Ortiz said.

The issue of what to do with Chesilhurst's youngest students remains unresolved, tied up in court proceedings, local politics, and negotiations involving New Jersey's top education officials.

Chesilhurst closed Foster Elementary School in 2009 for reasons that are in dispute. The superintendent contends that he was pressured by the state; the state has said Chesilhurst acted on its own in response to budgetary problems.

That September, local grade-schoolers were sent to neighboring Winslow, where the town's middle and high school students already had attended class. But the relationship between the districts has grown rocky over missed tuition payments, and it's unclear whether any Chesilhurst students will be in Winslow in the 2012-13 academic year.

The options being considered by state and local officials are essentially unchanged since 2009: Make a permanent arrangement to send Chesilhurst's elementary students elsewhere, or allow the district - which currently has a single employee, the superintendent - to reopen Foster.

Many in the small, predominantly African American borough in eastern Camden County are tired of waiting for a decision.

"It's amazing to me we're still in the same spot," said Mayor Michael Blunt. "If this was Cherry Hill or Voorhees, you can guarantee the state wouldn't have allowed this to go as long as it has."

Complicating matters was the change in the governor's office after Chesilhurst first began to bus its approximately 120 elementary students.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine was a strong advocate for consolidating school districts. In 2009, 13 districts termed "nonoperating," because they had no schools and paid tuition for their children to attend school elsewhere, entered into mergers. Mergers were planned for 13 more nonoperating districts the following year, but then Gov. Christie took office.

The second wave of consolidations is under review, said a New Jersey Department of Education spokeswoman.

"In some scenarios, it is more economical" for a nonoperational district simply to pay tuition, she wrote.

Chesilhurst contested its 2009 classification as a nonoperating district in court on the ground that while students had left Foster, it could continue to run after-school programs there. The matter remains under litigation.

The town is divided over what should be the fate of the vacant school and Chesilhurst Superintendent Abdi Gass, whose more than $100,000 salary has made him a lightning rod for critics.

Gass has fought to reopen the school and is embroiled in the disagreement with Winslow over the more than $1 million in tuition the neighboring district says it is owed.

Last summer, former state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler called for an investigation into why Gass hadn't made tuition payments to Winslow. A review of Chesilhurst's books by state education officials found the district's finances to be in order, but the tuition dispute was referred to another unit within the Education Department.

Gass declined to be interviewed for this article and referred questions to Rocky Peterson, the district's attorney.

Chesilhurst withheld tuition because it had not received adequate documentation from Winslow on the number of borough students it was educating, Peterson said.

"Whatever can be verified, Chesilhurst will pay," he said.

Larry James, a former school board president and a Gass supporter, said elementary school students would be better off back in Chesilhurst.

"The classes here would be much smaller," he said. "The teachers, some of them have been there 35 years. They know the kids. It's good for the community."

Many in the town, including the mayor, believe that while reopening the school might be appealing, it's not realistic.

"You need teachers and money and all sorts of things. We don't have anything," said Ortiz, a mother of three. "It would take years to rebuild. Our board of education needs to go now."

Chesilhurst's voters will soon be able to make their views known on the question of where to educate the town's children.

In a court proceeding last week over the tuition payments, the judge ordered that a question be placed on the ballot in November to let voters express their preference.

But even that may not end the matter. Whatever voters decide in the referendum must be evaluated by state and local officials, Peterson said.

"There are some real practical questions that need to be answered," he said. "If they vote to reopen the school, [are] there adequate staffing and resources available?"


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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