By Brenda Flanagan
Freehold Borough parents like Natalie Pomerantz Hyman cried with joy, hearing their school overcrowding crisis will finally end. Five hundred sixty extra kids now cram three buildings here, but an historic state ruling just overrode the local voters and ordered them to build new classrooms and other facilities. It’s a lifeline for Natalie’s kids, Tristan and Isabel.
“They were waiting and waiting and everybody was crying, everybody was emotional because it’s like a huge weight has been lifted, like finally it happened. This is going to be a relief for me, for the teachers, for the parents, for the whole community,” she said.
The superintendent’s thrilled. He showed us where the new gym and cafeteria will go and where at least 23 new classrooms will be built.
“What this means, in short, is that we have the authority to now build the space we need to properly educate the students,” said Superintendent Rocco Tomazic.
The district had appealed in desperation to state Education Commissioner David Hespe, after local voters twice refused to pay almost $280 a year more in property taxes to raise $32 million for school additions. Ultimately, Hespe overruled those voters, calling it “…an extraordinary remedy that has been exercised only after the development of a full and complete record clearly demonstrating that the failure to act will deprive children in this community of the educational opportunity that they will need to succeed in life.”
“The thing that was a compelling issue in this case was the nature of the overcrowding. It was undeniable,” said Tomazic.
But the state did soften the financial blow, offering to pay 85 percent of the construction costs. And the additions probably won’t be built for a couple years.
“It’s rare. The state doesn’t do this very often, only in the most dire of circumstances and it’s as close to perfect as you’re going to get. Our taxpayers in Freehold Borough already contribute a million dollars more in their local fair share than the state suggests they should,” said Sen. Jennifer Beck.
Some residents still object.
“No, not happy. Not sure what we can do about it. Voting doesn’t seem to help, so…,” said Freehold resident Diane Grieco.
Another flash point: more than 70 percent of kids here are Latino, a booming population.
“Their enrollment has gone up. Other surrounding districts that are much wealthier, their enrollments have gone down. And so in New Jersey since we don’t have regionalized schools, what you end up having is this pocket of segregation and unequal facilities,” said Latino Coalition Director Frank Argote-Freyre.
The new classrooms will go a long way toward fixing that.
“It won’t be right away but at least it’s a start in the right direction. Something is happening,” Pomerantz Hyman said.
Perhaps anticipating a wave of similar appeals, Hespe said that the facts and the legal applications in this decision are specific to Freehold and he warned it’s not broadly applicable to other districts.