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A few weeks ago, I decided to forgo my nightly reality TV viewing to be a fly on the wall at the second round of school board presentations about the impact of changing demographics and enrollment projections on Hopewell Valley elementary schools. Luckily, I was just as entertained as if I had stayed home to watch the “ Real Housewives” du jour.

First, a little backstory. I moved to Pennington Boro two years ago and one of the big things that attracted me to the area was the adorable, quaint, Norman Rockwell-esque Toll Gate Elementary School in the middle of town. We ended up buying a house a few blocks away, and literally every day during warm weather I walk with my boys through a wooded trail to the school’s field and playground. I have thought numerous times how awesome it is for them to play as young children on the same turf where they will spend formative and memorable elementary years. I love the small nature of the school, and the pervasive spirit of community involvement and parental commitment that exists.

This past year, my older son became a student in the district’s public preschool program at Hopewell Elementary School, a whopping eleven miles from my house. He rides a bus that winds through Titusville and almost to the border of Hunterdon County before doubling back up to Hopewell. It takes an hour each way and he loves it. He is three and a half.

So while we moved here thinking our kids would skip down the street to school like generations of old, my son is getting an amazing experience at another district school and we have been nothing but pleased with the people and opportunities we have encountered there.

I was curious, then, to attend the seventh of eight presentations by Superintendent Thomas Smith to hear firsthand what exactly is going on and how it might affect my child(ren).

Future Toll Gate student?
Future Toll Gate student?

MercerMe.com co-blogger Ryan Kennedy did a great post that recaps the first round of meetings and links to the Superintendent’s presentation. The school district and local media are also providing information to the public about the key issues at hand, so I won’t take up too much space rehashing what Smith has already said eight times and has been covered extensively elsewhere.

But what I did find interesting was the passion, emotion and fervor with which people responded to the Superintendent’s remarks. Despite making all this information public through open meetings, press releases and by inviting public comment in the first place, the Superintendent was met at the Toll Gate meeting (which was attended by current and former parents, local residents who pay taxes but don’t have children in schools and parents of future students like me) with a good deal of emotion, concern and personal opinion about how changes in enrollment might affect our local schools and the children and families who attend them.

People questioned the data presented — arguing it wasn’t accurate, didn’t forecast far enough into the future, or wasn’t substantial enough — and challenged the Superintendent as to whether anyone on his staff was even able to interpret such data. Opinions came back to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage – noting that if enrollment issues weren’t directly affecting Toll Gate, this community should not have to change.

They questioned the random method for selecting members of the advisory committee of parents, staff and administrators representing each school to tackle these issues over the next eight months, and argued there should be a better way for making sure those selected were truly qualified for the task. The names were chosen by random drawing from a hat last week and the final committee has yet to be finalized, but should be made public in the coming days. Analogies with the popular “Hunger Games” trilogy abounded as one member of the audience compared those submitting their names to the planning committee as “tributes” volunteering for a fight to the death.

Local realtors spoke up about the impact on property values and the number of in-town residences turning over as older generations make way for young families. Parents of grown children from other school districts talked about their experiences going through enrollment shifts and urged a cautious approach. Parents of current Toll Gate students practically begged the Smith to “wait a few more years” and gather more data before starting down a path that might lead to change.

Throughout the meeting, all I kept thinking is, why would the Superintendent subject himself to this public criticism not once, not twice, but eight times if there wasn’t some actual, verifiable reason for taking a close look at things. And by golly he is actually asking for the community’s opinion before making a decision. Would he really go to all the trouble if there weren’t a valid reason?

I, as I’m sure everyone at the meeting that night, will be curious to see how this plays out. Will my kids end up at Toll Gate as we expected when we moved here? Will they go there for a few years, only to move to another district school for the rest of their elementary education? Will they take the bus over to Bear Tavern to participate in one of the new magnet programs? Only time will tell.

But what I do know is that our school district seems to have a Superintendent who is very open to communication and community input, is willing to face public opinion head on and to involve the community in decision-making processes. We also have an extremely involved and passionate group of parents who are fully committed to making sure children in the district get a high-quality public education. And from what I’ve seen, we have four amazing elementary schools with a dedicated staff and faculty where, so far, my child is reaping great benefits. Yay for tax dollars well-spent.

The tributes…ahem, Future Planning Committee members, are in the process of being selected, and will have their first meeting Feb. 19.

May the odds be ever in their favor, and MercerMe will continue following the games as they unfold.

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Andrea Fereshteh has been writing for as long as she can remember. An avid journal-keeper as a child, she dabbled in dramatic notes to her parents and designed her own stationary. With a zest for small talk and meeting new people, she pursued journalism in college and worked for nine years in PR, writing and media relations for the higher ed and nonprofit sectors. She has a mousters and ducktorate from Disney University and is a mother to two lively boys who inspire her to just keep writing, just keep writing.

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