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I still remember the summer of my third grade at Tollgate Grammar school. That was the year that an entire bus route of children were redistricted into my life. I don’t recall it being that big of a deal – but apparently it was. Since then, someone in my family has been a pupil at each of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District schools (okay, except Stony Brook Elementary – but in my defense that didn’t exist at the time) – and I was the only one who didn’t have to switch midway for one reason or another.

If you live in Hopewell Valley – get ready for another round. Enrollment is declining and projected to continue in that direction. From a peak in 2006 of over 4000 students that lead to the construction of our 4th elementary school, the K-12 population has dipped almost 10%.  While apparently not “sciency” enough for the demographers to confirm fully, if one were to just project this year’s 223 kindergarteners on through to their senior year (the class of 2014 will graduate around 300 – about 35% more) we’re looking at less than 2900 total students when that class graduates.

IMG_1375Declining enrollment brings some really obvious, and some not so obvious challenges.  At a series of public meetings, HVRSD superintendent Tom Smith is getting the word out that our community has some decisions to make.  I and a couple dozen other people attended a public meeting on what is in store on Wednesday at Hopewell Elementary.  Similar (and by similar – I mean exactly the same – by design) presentations will be made four more times in January.  You can view of PDF of his powerpoint presentation here if you can’t make one in person.

Perhaps facilities will be changed, maybe school coverage will be shifted for better “balancing,” potentially we could see magnate schools or K-3, 4-5 etc. models – it’s all on the table and at this point not at all clear where the Board will take this, if anywhere.  What is clear, is that by fall of 2014, our School Board will make a decision to do something or nothing.  The Board has not decided anything yet – and will be seeking input from the community.  That means, for example, that the rumors of XYZ school being put up for sale, closed, or turned into condos – are just that.  Rumors.  It hasn’t been decided.  Relax – for now.

The District is setting up a committee made up of representatives of each of the three municipalities and all six schools.  This might be where there is some room for an improved plan, because that committee will be formed at random, Hunger Games style.  Put your name in the hat by emailing your name and phone number to futureplanning@hvrsd.org [changed and confirmed; as of 12pm 12/19/13 this email is up and running] and in February during a videotaped PowerBall-style drawing, the committee will be formed.  While the winners of this lottery won’t have the misfortune of having to fight to the death for their town’s school or be stoned, I don’t necessarily believe random selection will capture the talent and diversity that Hopewell Valley has to offer.

Input will be collected, but the decision will ultimately be one for the elected School Board in the fall.  Right now – the district is in the early phases of getting the word out – but once the real discussion starts, it will be very important to make your voice heard about what happens next.  There will be no referendum.  There is no approval of the plan by the municipal governments.  The State and the County don’t have a meaningful say in this.  It’s our decision – through our School Board representatives.  For a community not yet used to our new November school board election cycle and the corresponding removal of the springtime public yes/no vote on the school budgets, this might be a tough pill to swallow – but the only way to swallow it is through participation.  You don’t need to be elected (trust me on this one!) to have a “vote” on this – public participation, public comment at public meetings and the political process is where we exercise our opinions now. 

Let’s get to it.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article Ryan!! High-five to the Lottery reference, which I had to read in my inner-city 9th grade honors English class. I remember being horrified (and thrilled!) that this was a “school-book”. Looks like this issue is a great opportunity for citizen invlovement and input.

    And, just for my info, is declining registration a reflection of the cost of living in Hopewell? Or the lack of any recent development (subdivisions, town homes, low-income housing) that some of the other nearby towns (Lawrence, Ewing, Hillsborough) have seen in the last 20-30 years? I’m not originally from the area – but we ruled out Hopewell b/c of the home prices in 2006-2008…

  2. Having grown up in the area at the same time that Ryan did, I suspect that the bump in school-age population in the 90s/00s (if I recall correctly, when we started high school there were about 150 students in the graduating class, and when we graduated the freshman class was closer to 300) that reflected families with school-age kids moving into the area wasn’t sustained not just because of cost of living and little major development since Brandon Farms, but also because there’s less turnover in housing in general. I’m not a resident anymore, just a regular visitor to the area, and I don’t have data, but my impression is that in general people who live in Hopewell are staying in Hopewell, even when their adult children move on.

  3. Yes, Lara is on to it. The powerpoint presentation suggests these reasons for decline:

    Possible reasons:
    • The economy
    • Families are having fewer children
    • Aging housing developments – no influx of new families
    • Many families are retiring in place; not selling to younger families
    • No significant housing projects are approved for the Hopewell Valley

    And the presentation identifies that Hopewell Valley is not unique and, “with the exception of Robbinsville, many schools in our county and state are seeing an enrollment decrease.”

  4. I wonder why the planning for a community to be built south of Washington Xing Rd isn’t being discussed? There doesn’t seem to be any consideration for the future development of Hopewell. Affordable Housing is a hot debate point in the Valley, and I would think this future planning committee would be working in a vacuum if it didn’t know exactly what the plans were for meeting COAH requirements.

  5. Annie: part of the presentation indicated that the demographics and assumptions include the currently approved COAH units (i.e., 70 at Pennytown, etc.). During the Marshalls Corner/Pennytown “debate” a report of physical impacts was done that surprisingly (to me – not being a demographer) actually showed that many of these developments, even the larger ones, do not have as large of an impact as one might think. You still find that report on the Township’s website (though now buried a bit):

    http://www.hopewelltwp.org/Marshalls-Corner-Pennytown-Task-Force/Pennytown-FIA-Report-03-8-2013-revised.pdf

    That study said the full “joint” built out of that project (295 market units and 70 COAH) would only yield 97 new students. To put things in perspective, we would be able to fit 10 projects of that size in our schools in 12 years from now (4000ish student capacity vs. projected 2900ish enrollment).

    • Ken: the presentation originally had the wrong address with the word “committee” in it – the link and the text of the correct address should now be listed. My first attempt bounced as well.

  6. Hi Ryan,
    Thank you for your response. I have read that report. I was also present when Mr. Clark of the Planning Committee stated that in his opinion, people would move to Hopewell and be drawn here specifically because of the school system and its reputation. It seems irrational to think that over 400 homes can be built and no new families with children will affect school demographics.

    I guess my point is that two of the bullets mentioned are not true when Pennytown and the proposed community south of Washington Xing are built. Hence my concern that there seems to be a disconnect between separate factions preparing for Hopewell’s future when discussing these points:
    • Aging housing developments – no influx of new families
    • No significant housing projects are approved for the Hopewell Valley

  7. As a resident of Mercer County for 30 years (Pennington and Lawrence), I find this situation with Hopewell very interesting. This appears to be the only district with declining enrollment in Mercer. Others such as Lawrence have seen exponential growth particularly of south east Asians. Hopewell is probably suffering from a decline in the overall white demographic that they are accustomed to and for some reason are not attracting the Asians either because of housing stock or neighborhood attractiveness (i.e inclusiveness). I don’t think there will be a sudden infusion of Caucasians in the future with small kids, the key will be town house complexes attracting middle class non whites. Incidentally, for Lawrence in my example, has seen improved school performance over the last couple of years.

  8. Was Mercer Me at the meeting last night of the Future Planning Committee? (4/16/2014). After Mr. Pogoselski’s hour long discussion with the public in attendance, do you still believe that the Superintendent won’t close a school? He has only one motivator, and that is to balance his budget. The decision regarding how to do this will be made by the Board of Education and despite overwhelming evidence that construction and development and population growth in Hopewell will continue, they are hell bent to close Bear Tavern. He practically said so! There’s a saying — 98% of all rumors are true… and the smoke and mirrors surrounding Smith and his FPC gets thicker with each meeting.

    • Thank you for your feedback and analysis, Annie. Andrea Fereshteh from MercerMe was at the meeting last night and her post will be published tomorrow morning. I’m also eager to hear her take on the proceedings.

  9. […] As MercerMe has reported, Smith convened the advisory committee after holding a series of informational meetings this past winter to discuss enrollment projections and the resulting impact on district schools. The committee is charged with providing a recommended plan that will be presented to the Board of Education who will then decide whether or not to adopt said plan or take a different approach altogether. […]

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