Evesham, losing enrollment, considers closing a school

Sue Harrison (left) talks with Sandy Student, president of the Evesham Board of Education.
Sue Harrison (left) talks with Sandy Student, president of the Evesham Board of Education. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 04, 2013

How does a suburban school district deal with declining enrollment?

Burlington County's Evesham Township is grappling with that question and the thorny issues it touches upon, such as stabilizing property taxes and how to raise revenue.

To some in town, the options for dealing with a 14 percent enrollment drop aren't pretty.

A committee of officials, school employees, and residents formed under a district strategic plan the school board adopted this year has held a few meetings to consider the possibilities.

The main options being looked at, according to Superintendent John Scavelli, include closing Florence V. Evans Elementary School, beloved by its families.

The committee is also reexamining the state's Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which would bring in revenue by taking students from other districts, most likely from lower-income households.

Three years ago, the Board of Education voted down the idea in a heated meeting. One resident spoke in favor of the program, but many others expressed concern it would lower their property values and compromise their schools' educational quality.

Sandy Student, president of the school board, opposes closing the school, which has a little more than 500 students. At a recent meeting, Scavelli said closing it would bring a one-time saving of $1 million. Student also opposes the choice program, which Scavelli said could generate about $200,000 in the first year.

Student said the district should be looking at other courses of action, like selling 19 unused acres on Route 73 and 15 acres in a residential section, which he said was being appraised. Other options should include shifting and possibly reducing staff, he said.

"You got to think outside the box," he said. "If something was defeated . . . why bring it up again?"

Mayor Randy Brown called closing a school a "hare-brained scheme" that could hinder the township's development push, which includes proposed new retail and more than 600 new housing units. He said it could also lower property values for neighbors of Evans and lead to increased taxes.

"It would be an economic disaster," Brown said. "It would be a community disaster to close any school."

He also suggested the school might be needed. More than 300 new homes and townhouses have been approved, and some of them will have families, he said.

Evesham's population rose from 42,275 in 2000 to 45,538 in 2010, and the township added 212 people from 2010 to 2012.

Nevertheless, Scavelli said the district, which has about 4,600 students, had undergone a 741-pupil decline in the last 10 years. In addition, he said, the firm doing demographic studies for the district took into account proposed new housing and projected a further net decline of 269 students by 2017-18. Fewer children are being born in the community, Scavelli said.

Nancy Jamanow, township community development director, also pointed out that several over-55 communities had sprouted in the township.

The district has recurring financial challenges, Scavelli said.

The state's 2 percent cap on tax increases allows for a spending increase of only $1 million a year, and the board has approved going to the limit only once, he said.

"We begin each year needing up to as much as $2 million" for employee contractual obligations, as well as other needs, he said.

The families of the more than 500 students at Evans, one of the district's oldest schools, do not want to see it closed.

"It makes us horribly sad," said Terri Verrone, a Parent Teacher Association officer with two children at Evans. "It's a great school. It's a great community."

She worries, too, about the impact a closing would have on Evesham's ability to attract new families.

"It can't be attractive to families when a school closes," she said. "It can't be good."

PTA president Margie Abate said parents would do everything they could to keep the school open.

"It's more like a family than just sending your kids to school," she said.


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rgiordano@phillynews.com

@ritagiordano

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