LBI School Board OKs Choice Program for 2019-20 Year

Sep 05, 2018

Even before students return to school this week, there were questions about whether the Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education should continue a state-funded program that would permit out-of-district students to attend one of its two schools. Participation in the Choice program is optional for districts and requires an application to the state Department of Education, which oversees the educational campaign.

When it was first established, the district was allotted 76 seats by the state. In subsequent years, the number has resided at 42. Last fall, the school board agreed to keep the program in place for the upcoming school year and to leave the number of seats allotted at that figure.

“Choice has been talked to death,” board President James Donahower said during last month’s school board meeting, noting the board was voting to decide whether the district would continue with the program for the 2019-20 school year.

The district’s decision to continue with the program has been a sore spot for years among members of the public, and even some board members, who believe it costs the district more money than it brings in to host students from out of town.

“In 2000, we had 400 LBI kids,” said John McMenamin, the first-term school board member from Surf City. “We now have 166. I think we should slowly eliminate it, let the current students graduate out of it and not replace them.”

Long-time school board veteran Bonnie Picaro, a Long Beach Township representative, disagrees with McMenamin. Citing upcoming expenses, mainly those associated with making repairs to the LBI Grade School, Picaro said she could not in good conscience vote to eliminate the program.

“It’s not the time to eliminate $500,000,” she said. “I see it as irresponsible to get rid of it.”

Tom Beatty, another township representative, who is up for reelection in November, was conflicted. While he is in favor of the program because it does bring in the money, he voted against continuing it because it inflates the district’s enrollment.

“If the intention is to get into one school ...,” he said.

Efforts to determine the district enrollment, with or without Choice, is difficult to calculate, according to Donahower.

“We can’t know when those trends are going to diminish or when they’re going to go back up,” he said.

Picaro said in the wake of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy some families have chosen to make the Island their permanent home, and there are under-school-age children not yet accounted for in trying to determine future district enrollment.

But there is no denying the district is popular with locals, on and off the island. In fact, during the same meeting last month, the board was asked to consider adding a half-day pre-school class to accommodate the overflow.

Frank Birney, principal of the Ethel A. Jacobsen School and director of special services for the district, said the half-day program is for 3-years-olds, but some parents with 4-year-old children on the waiting list are interested in the half-day class.

“We try to keep the classes to 15 students,” he said, adding the program is tuition-based, and “when all things are equal, Island children get preference.”

However, that isn’t true if a child from the mainland has been on the waiting list, Birney explained.

“Some people are on the waiting list since their child is 1,” he said.

Out-of-district students enrolled in that program are not considered part of Choice because it’s a tuition-based program. Nor would their enrollment in the district immediately kick into the state-funded program without applying to be part of it.

The district has the opportunity each year to consider participation in Choice and to determine the number of open enrollment seats it will consider for the program. If the board had chosen to make any changes last month, it would not have impacted the 2018-19 school year.

The number of Choice students does not include any student whose family moves outside school boundaries but who continues to be educated in the district, district officials explained last fall when the topic was discussed at a school board meeting. Those students are considered non-funded Choice students, and by law the district has to allow them to continue for the school year if the parents request it.

— Gina G. Scala

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