Friday, July 12, 2024

Knowlton Faces Parent Concerns and Out-of-District Costs

Concerned parents attended the meeting

At the June 17 meeting of Knowlton Elementary’s board of education, attending parents had plenty to say.

Conversations about drug and violence prevention

One parent expressed concerns about Red Ribbon Week, a nationwide drug and violence prevention campaign observed every October. The parent worried that the conversation wouldn’t be appropriate for younger children and wondered if there would be a way to opt out of Red Ribbon Week activities.

Superintendent Jeannine DeFalco pointed out that Red Ribbon Week is “a national week that the state implores us to do,” with funding from the local municipal alliance. One Knowlton teacher explained that in kindergarten and first grade, substances aren’t discussed in any kind of detail; the focus is on engaging the students instead.

Still, the parent pointed out that her second-grader “was introduced to prescription drugs, marijuana, cigarette smoking, and I was like– wow.” She acknowledged that it’s possible that this came from older students speaking with younger students outside the classroom, not necessarily from the provided curriculum.

“We can figure out something,” DeFalco said. Vice Principal Dana Carroll also encouraged any concerned parents to reach out to the health teacher so their concerns are known in advance.

Another hot topic: bullying on the school buses.

“I’ve heard very horrible things about the bus,” one parent said.

“The bus is atrocious,” said another. “I know it’s been a problem in the past.”

Carroll acknowledged that she has previously had to assign seats on one bus route due to poor student conduct. The students eventually earned back the right to sit where they wanted, but it took a period of consistent redirection.

Other parent comments focused on the Spanish language program and the possibility of a digital sign for the school. By the time the public comment section ended, half an hour had passed.

In her superintendent report, DeFalco celebrated the year’s big milestone: the sixth grade commencement. She reported that the youngsters did a great job at the ceremony and thanked board members for their attendance.

The less positive news would come toward the end of the meeting.

First came a motion to approve payment for a transportation contract in the 2024/2025 school year. Paying for school busing is an ordinary part of school board procedures.

But what made this contract stand out was the price for the payoff: in this case, $27,180 to send one Knowlton student to an out-of-district placement.

Board vice president Matthew Baley was incredulous.

“We’re paying $27,000 for one student to go somewhere else?” he asked.

“Yes,” DeFalco said. “That’s just transportation.”

She also pointed out that North Warren is likewise sending its own student to the same out-of-district placement, so Knowlton and North Warren are splitting the cost of the bus contract. If North Warren wasn’t sending its own student on the route, Knowlton would have to pay for the bus route by itself, and the cost would be double.

“God bless America,” Baley said, shaking his head.

“Do you want to drive them?” one parent said with a laugh.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Baley said. “If I had the time, I might consider it.”

The motion needed a roll call to pass. There weren’t truly any other options, so all board members voted yes, until Baley.

“Since it already passed,” he said, “I’m gonna vote no.”

The question of bussing for out-of-district placements came up again a few minutes later. This time, the board needed to approve funding on a per diem basis for a summer school term.

Once again, the other school board members submitted enough “yes” votes for the motion to pass while Baley cast a symbolic vote of no.

That was only for transportation. Lastly came the motion to approve funding for out-of-district tuition at Warren Glen Academy, a special education school.

The cost of tuition for one year: $66,792. As board member Dawn Bates pointed out, the cost of transportation plus tuition added up to about $94,000, a nearly six-figure cost for one child.

“That’s just insane,” she said.

DeFalco noted that there are some opportunities that allow districts to apply for reimbursement in order to cover out–of-district placement costs. She couldn’t predict how much Knowlton would receive back, but even in the best case scenario, only half the cost would be covered.

The cost had to be paid, as board members noted. A public school like Knowlton Elementary is legally obligated to provide “free appropriate public education” to all children in its district.

Most board members approved the motion. Baley completed his hat trick for the evening by abstaining.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.