We’re moving into the 21st Century with high educational standards designed to meet the demands of a competitive world market and fast-paced advancements with technology. Schools across the country are challenged to implement advanced curricular and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) program initiatives, while in New Jersey they are allowed annual budget growth of no more than 2 percent. Under that 2 percent cap, school boards have to fit in escalating health care costs, rising costs for personnel, and unfunded government mandates.
These challenges make it difficult not only to improve curricula, but also to maintain school buildings — especially those built in the early 1900s when technology and other 21st Century infrastructure needs didn’t even exist. As decades passed, school districts like Haddonfield put their limited resources into maintaining programs rather than opening up school walls and spending millions of dollars (that they didn’t have) to address the needs hidden there.
For Haddonfield, that 2 percent cap meant an annual spending increase of about $600,000 a year. With other needs much closer to student learning – and more visible – it has been difficult to dedicate sparse resources toward building maintenance. This problem is not, however, unique to Haddonfield. It’s a state and national trend, with billions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs at schools across the country. Some districts have been creative in addressing revenue needs, and Haddonfield’s tuition program has been cited as an example. That initiative brings in almost the same amount of revenue (about $500,000 per year) that the district receives in state aid. Haddonfield receives very little state aid. It also has one of the lowest per-pupil costs compared to similar districts.
Even with these low costs, Haddonfield School District has been recognized repeatedly as one of the best school districts not only in the state but the nation. Recently, Newsweek ranked Haddonfield as the 84th Best High School in the nation out of over 27,000 high schools nationwide. Elizabeth Haddon Elementary School was just named a National Blue Ribbon School; only eight elementary schools in the state received that award. As Haddonfield’s Superintendent, I was one of just 100 school leaders invited to the First Superintendent Summit at the White House.
What does this have to do with our 100-year-old buildings? While we are among the best educationally, our prudent saving helped us discover that we have significant structural issues. The school board used a $1.4 million reserve to initiate deeper investigations (and repairs) within the walls and foundational structures of our buildings, and that process revealed needs that cannot be ignored. Instead of looking in the past, as a District we are focusing on the future and are at a point where we have to address these issues through a proposed bond referendum while maintaining Haddonfield’s Tradition of Excellence in the educational programs and opportunities for our students.
Each year in my graduation speech, I state that our school system is not made up of bricks and mortar but rather students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members. Yet, the reality is that we, as school districts, need sound school buildings and resources to maintain Educational Excellence.