FREEHOLD — The sign that hangs above the door says “library.” But students at Park Avenue Elementary School don’t come here to check out books.
The room has been overtaken, repurposed into seven miniature and makeshift classrooms partitioned only by thin, 6-foot temporary dividers. Students learning English as their second language sit between those dividers, meeting with teachers for small-group or one-on-one instruction.
They come here to learn basic skills, such as how to plot a number on a line. They come here to repeat “My dog can run fast” and other English-language phrases.
They come here because the school has so many students that every other space in the building, even the stage at the front of the cafeteria, is already occupied.
“Every one of these little classrooms represents a classroom that I need,” school Superintendent Rocco Tomazic says, pointing to one of the classes.
The Park Avenue school, along with Freehold Learning Center and the Freehold Intermediate School, have become ground zero for Freehold Borough School District’s overcrowding crisis. Emblematic of communities across the country with large immigrant populations, the K-8 district says it is overwhelmed by a decades-long influx of new students, many of whom are the children of undocumented workers.
Twice spurned by voters asked to approve building expansions, the Freehold Borough district — separate from neighboring Freehold Township — has reached a tipping point at nearly 500 students over capacity across its three schools. In a move supported by scores of parents who say they can’t vote because they’re not U.S. citizens, the borough’s board of education is asking the state education commissioner to make the rare decision to overrule a local referendum and give the district permission to secure a nearly $33 million bond for expansion.
Residents who rejected the bond in the two referendums say overturning the vote would be misguided and undemocratic, heaping a $278 unpopular tax increase on the average homeowner.
“Our vote is being sidestepped by those who obviously have no appreciation for democracy,” resident Thomas Sheil wrote in a letter opposing the district’s petition to the state.
Even Freehold residents who voted to approve the bond say they sympathize with those who didn’t. Voices on both sides of the debate blame the crammed classrooms on federal immigration policy and New Jersey’s more than 15-percent underfunding of Freehold schools, according to the state’s funding formula.
“This is a problem that we didn’t create,” said Sharon Shutzer, a longtime borough councilwoman who said she supports the expansion but wants state relief. “We are being told to fix it… but we are not capable of doing that financially on our own.”
Yet Freehold has no choice but to add classroom space at the taxpayers’ expense, Tomazic says. With an increase of 50 students expected in the fall, the district has conceded that it’s no longer capable of providing a thorough and efficient education with the space that it has.
“There is no doubt that things, left undone, are going to get worse,” Tomazic warns.
Freehold is my home
Maria Ramirez calls Freehold Borough her hometown. That’s the way she sees it. That’s the way her friends see it. And that’s the way her family sees it, Ramirez says through a Spanish language translator.
Among a wave of immigrants who arrived from Mexico and Central America in the 1990s, Ramirez joined her brother in Freehold after living in New York for two years.
Ramirez, a teenager when she left Mexico, fell in love with Freehold after arriving in 1995, she said.
Nestled between Monmouth County’s sprawling suburbs, the blue-collar community of less than 2 square miles has a walkable downtown with a bus station and a farmers market on weekends.
“When you ask people if they want to move to another town, they say, ‘No, I want to stay here in Freehold’,” Ramirez said.
Like so many immigrants who come to Freehold, Ramirez and her husband have stayed. They rented a room in a house for eight years before eventually finding their own apartment, she said.
Though neither she nor her husband became U.S. citizens until recently, Ramirez said she worked cleaning houses and her husband found a job as a cook. They had three children in Freehold, now ages 19, 13 and 11, and sent all of them to Freehold Borough schools.
“My son says, ‘When I grow up and work, I want to stay in Freehold’,” Ramirez said.
The Ramirez family’s story is typical of other immigrants who live in Freehold and work in town or other nearby communities, said Rita Dentino, executive director of Casa Freehold, a job center that helps immigrants learn English, file taxes and pursue citizenship.
Though longtime residents say there’s been no new housing development, Freehold’s official population grew about 12 percent between 1990 and 2010 from 10,742 to 12,052, according to U.S. Census data. New Jersey’s total population grew about 14 percent over that time.
Many of the new residents are immigrants who live in multi-family homes before finding apartments, Dentino said. Large families eventually rent a house or, in some instances, buy their own home, she said.
In 1990, before the U.S. Census specifically counted Latinos, the Hispanic population in Freehold was 11 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic/Latino population surged from 28 percent to 42 percent.
Many of the people came from Puebla, Oaxaca and other states in Mexico, Dentino said. More recently, others have moved to the borough from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, she said.
The men typically work in construction or landscaping while women clean houses and office buildings, Dentino said. Often, they have few resources and come because a friend or family member already lives in the borough and can help them find work and a place to live.
“That’s been true of every immigrant group that arrived (in America) from anywhere,” Dentino said. “It’s true of these people the same way, and they arrived here for exactly the same reasons.”
But immigrant workers haven’t always been welcome in Freehold. In 2003, day laborers and immigrants’ rights groups filed a federal lawsuit over the borough’s plans to begin arresting, fining and reporting to Homeland Security anyone who gathered at a so-called “muster zone” where day laborers looked for work.
The borough in 2004 agreed to reopen the dusty stretch of ground on the outskirts of town, and it settled the suit in 2006 by paying $278,000 in attorney fees and reimbursement funds.
While many of the new residents are not United States citizens, Dentino said, their children are as long as they are born in America. The children and grandchildren of those represented in the lawsuit against Freehold have steadily streamed into its schools.
The district first passed its 1,148-student functional capacity in the 2000-01 school year, when it enrolled 1,157 students, according to state data. The enrollment continued to grow gradually with each passing year.
By 2005-06, Freehold had 1,319 students. In 2010-11, enrollment increased to 1,413. At the conclusion of the 2014-15 school year, there were 1,641 students, according to the district.
About 71 percent of those students are Hispanic and 73 percent receive free or reduced lunch, according to state data. More than 320 students, about 20 percent of the student body, have limited English proficiency and need extra support.
As Ashley Garcia began second grade in the fall, she was surprised at the lack of space at Park Avenue Elementary School, she said.
An 8-year-old whose parents emigrated from Mexico before she was born, Ashley said the summer school she attended while visiting her grandparents in Mexico was “a little more bigger, where a lot of kids could fit.”
When Diane Dispenza began teaching at Freehold Learning Center in 1985, the school’s open concept worked well, she recalls.
The building, one of Freehold’s two elementary schools, does not have traditional classrooms separated by walls and doors. Yet when Dispenza started teaching there it had enough “quiet space” in its large instructional room that its classes could meet without much ambient noise, she wrote in a letter of support of the district’s expansion.
The center of the room had a library area with rows of bookshelves, which served as a buffer between the makeshift classrooms on either side of the library, she said.
“Though there was an occasional increase in noise, the students for the most part were attentive, engaged and happy to be in such a unique environment,” Dispenza wrote.
Today, the library space is gone. More than 500 students in grades K-5 are stuffed into a school meant for 394, their classes separated only by temporary 4-foot dividers, bookcases and portable white boards.
Learning spaces are so close that a student sitting in one third-grade class can hear the lessons being taught in each of the other three third-grade classes.
Fifth-grader Brian McKeon’s class can sometimes hear students in other classes crying, he said. It’s distracting, he said, because his classmates start to laugh.
“I would put walls in with separate classrooms and doors,” Brian said. “So you don’t listen to every other class and you can concentrate better.”
Teachers say they try to keep their classes quiet, but that’s not easy for the 26 students in kindergarten teacher Randee Mandelbaum’s class.
“Whispering for kindergarten is quite a challenge,” Mandelbaum said. “That usually stops our lessons. We have to cut our lessons short just because the noise gets loud.”
The school’s gym and cafeteria are the same room. There is no art room, so teacher Matthew Miranda brings “art on a cart.” His 40-minute classes are limited by what he can have students set up and clean up at their desks, which must be spotless for math and reading moments later.
“It’s hard to do clay, it’s hard to do paint, it’s hard to papier-mâché,” Miranda said.
Across town at Park Avenue Elementary School and the connected Freehold Intermediate School, gym classes hold as many 90 students from multiple grade levels to meet state requirements for physical education time.
The gymnasium is smaller than a regulation basketball court, and racks of folding chairs fill three of the four corners.
Team sports that teach students how to work together, such as floor hockey, are typically off-limits, gym teachers say. Otherwise, 60 students would be on the sideline watching.
“You have to get creative with what you do,” said Joe Mirault, a physical education teacher, as balls from a dogeball game whiz behind his head. “Because there’s only so many things you can do.”
Down the hall, in a health class, 23 students are sardined into a half-sized classroom intended for special education. As many as six students sit around tables intended for only two.
In the cafeteria, where lunch begins in shifts at 10:30 a.m., the stage has been transformed into a multi-purpose space used for physical and occupational therapy.
From behind a divider, students can hear the chatter of their classmates on lunch break. The aroma of cafeteria pizza permeates the air.
“Teachers will never stop teaching, and we will do the best we can with the space we have,” said Wendy Buchanan, a teacher at Park Avenue Elementary School. “But the space is really becoming an issue. … We really need some help to get out of this problem.”
Hoping for approval
Since 2003, New Jersey’s education commissioners have ruled only twice in cases of schools seeking to reverse voter referendums for construction bonds, an uncommon request, according to the state.
In both of those cases, in Clark Township in 2003 and in Milford in 2008, the commissioner ruled in the districts’ favor.
Freehold Borough School District believes it has a strong case for the third approval, school officials say.
Along with the fact that the schools are over capacity, Freehold’s class sizes are also larger than state guidelines for a high poverty school district, such as Freehold, the district wrote in its petition to the state.
Those thresholds are set at 21 students for kindergarten through third grade, 23 students in grades 4-5, and 24 students in grades 6-8, according to the district.
Inside Freehold Borough’s overcrowded schools
Rocco Tomazic, superintendent of Freehold Borough School District, inside the Freehold Learning Center. The school’s K-5 classes are not separated by walls. Noah K. Murray for NJ Advance Media)
Freehold had 35 classes in 2014-15 that exceeded those limits, even though the district rented six classrooms from the adjacent Freehold Township School District, the petition says.
The $32.9 million expansion would provide 17 new full-size classrooms, five small-group classrooms, a gymnasium dedicated solely to Park Avenue Elementary School, a library at Park Avenue Elementary School and a cafeteria at Freehold Learning Center.
Without the bond, Tomazic foresees having to stagger school start times beginning in 2016-17 so that all students at Park Avenue can fulfill the time requirements for physical education.
“My concern is that nobody does anything, and that we continue to get 50-plus kids ever year,” he said.
The petition will be considered first by an administrative law judge who will then provide a recommendation to state Education Commissioner David Hespe. Hundreds of letters of public comment have been submitted in the case.
Residents opposed to the expansion criticized the specifics of the plan — the district would still be about 100 students over capacity — and suggested Freehold instead explore renting space or merging with other neighboring districts.
Some blame the borough and recommended it crack down its code enforcement on multi-family homes. Others said they can’t afford a tax increase and bristled at the thought of the referendums being overturned.
“There is no polite way to state this,” wrote residents Jeanne and Jeffrey Flegler, “but it would be an affront to the foundation of our democracy and indeed our constitution to have the twice voted will of the voters overturned by non-residents sitting in judgment of and with veto power over our ‘local control’ of our schools.”
Many of the letters in favor of the expansion are Spanish form letters with an English translation. Casa Freehold worked with statewide Latino groups to find residents to sign the letters saying they are worried about the cramped conditions.
More than 60 letters are signed by parents who say they are not U.S. citizens and could not vote in the referendums, which failed by less than 130 votes each.
“I have been here for many years, I pay taxes and support the schools, yet I have no say when it comes to voting,” reads one commonly submitted form letter. “Please give my child and all the children in Freehold a fair chance.”
Many teachers, students and longtime residents also wrote in favor of the expansion. Yeimi Hernandez, who attended both Park Avenue Elementary School and Freehold Intermediate School, submitted a handwritten letter about her sister who goes to Park Avenue.
“I want her to receive the best of this school, but we need to build more,” Yeimi wrote. “I know you guys might say, ‘What does this kid know?’ Well, I know a lot. Our school could be the best of the best if only we had more space where we can be able to let these children concentrate and feel good to be in a room where they do not feel crowded.”
But, even among the supporters, there’s resistance to Freehold being held financially responsible for the school expansion.
In an era of stagnant K-12 state school aid, districts with tremendous enrollment growth have been especially underfunded based on the state’s formula. Lobbying campaigns for special relief from Trenton have been unsuccessful.
As the county seat, Freehold is home to a courthouse and other tax-exempt government properties. The historic town has little room for development that would expand its tax base.
“We just can’t afford it,” said Kevin Coyne, a fifth-generation Freehold native who supports the expansion but is worried about the cost. “This one little town can’t take on the burden of educating everybody.”
In extraordinary ruling, state overrules voters, orders $32M school expansion
New Jersey’s education commissioner has just nullified two voter referendums in Freehold Borough and ordered a $32 million school expansion to alleviate overcrowding in a district with a growing number of children from families of unauthorized immigrants.
Education Commissioner David Hespe on Thursday agreed with the opinion of an administrative law judge, who found that the improvements are needed, despite opposition from local residents.
To ease the impact on Freehold residents, the state will pay for 85 percent of the expansion costs with local taxpayers covering the remaining 15 percent.
“The Commissioner emphasizes that this decision to authorize the issuance of bonds outside of a referendum represents an extraordinary remedy,” Hespe wrote in his ruling.
Without the expansion, students wouldn’t have access to the thorough and efficient education they are entitled to under the state’s constitution, Hespe wrote.
Freehold Borough School District is asking the state to overrule local voters and approve a $33 million school expansion. The district its close to 500 students over capacity across its three schools.
Currently, an elementary school library is converted into seven makeshift classrooms, students are crammed into schools built to serve far fewer students and the stages at the front of one school’s gym and cafeteria are used as stopgap instructional spaces.
The $32.9 million expansion will lead to 17 new full-size classrooms, five small-group classrooms, a gymnasium dedicated solely to Park Avenue Elementary School, a library at Park Avenue Elementary School and a cafeteria at Freehold Learning Center.
The ruling comes 15 years after the district first passed its functional capacity and after local residents twice rejected proposed expansions in bitter voter referendums that divided the community.
“We thank the Commissioner for this favorable ruling which will allow us to move forward and address our overcrowding,” district Superintendent Rocco Tomazic said. “The needs of the resident students of Freehold Borough have been placed at the forefront.”
Emblematic of communities across the country with large immigrant populations, the K-8 district put the school expansion before voters, arguing that it is overwhelmed by a decades-long influx of new students, many of whom are the children of immigrants living in the country illegally.
Residents who rejected the bond in the two referendums said overturning the vote would be misguided and undemocratic. Had voters approved the expansion, the average homeowner would have faced a $278 property tax increase.
The decision marks the third time since 2003 that the state has overruled a town’s denial of a school expansion.