Schools Study Draws Residents' Scrutiny of Mayors
Mendham Borough Mayor Neil Henry and Chester Township Mayor Bill Cogger faced criticism over the disposition of the regional school district feasibility study.
Armed with whispered insults and sarcastic laughs in lieu of pitchforks and torches, a small group of people gathered Monday and Tuesday at council meetings in Mendham Borough and Chester Township, respectively, to press the mayors on the ongoing talks about the disposition of the regional schools.
For more than a year, the mayors of five municipalities whose high school students attend the West Morris Regional School District have been meeting to discuss the future of the district.
The result was a split among the towns on what options should be included in a feasibility study.
This week, Mendham Borough Mayor Neil Henry and Chester Township Mayor Bill Cogger were pressed about the issue.
While the next official date for the meeting of the West Morris Regional Education Advisory Committee isn’t until Oct. 30, the mayors of the communities did meet last week.
While working toward agreeing on specific changes in school structure in a potential feasibility study, the mayors came to an impasse in July, with Mendham Township saying it would not contribute its portion–$10,000–to fund the study if it included the analysis of a mega K-12 school district, encompassing all five towns.
At that same meeting, Chester Borough Mayor Bob Davis said that town’s council needed more time to consider where it stood. In the months since, the Borough has decided to side with Mendham Township and not fund a study including the mega K-12 option.
Those present at both meetings expressed to the mayors their desire to see their towns reverse their decision and support the options decided upon by Chester Borough and Mendham Township.
Mendham Borough resident Alan Bowen spoke Monday night at the Mendham Borough council meeting.
“I happen to have a son who is getting ready to move into the high school next year. I think there is a good opportunity to try to change it,” Bowen said. “I would certainly say the council should support the feasibility study, but we have to make choices that make sense for Mendham Borough. The option of the mega K-12 could exacerbate the problem we have today. If you can, support the view of Mendham Township and Chester Borough.”
Henry said that there was support in the study from the council, but he felt strongly that all of the communities needed to move forward together. Henry also said the study of the mega district was not something he feared.
“We as a governing body have checks and balances to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Henry said. “I hate to see this $10,000 we have for the feasibility study sitting there. But at this point I am doubtful we will come to a consensus.”
Borough resident Steve Moore asked for another solution.
“If the mayors can’t agree on what part of the feasibility study to fund, why not have Washington Township fund their part and we fund our part instead of subverting the process,” Moore said.
Henry said that was something that might happen.
“It is my understanding that is exactly what Washington Township has offered to do,” Henry said.
Indeed, as reported on Patch last Thursday, that option would have Washington Township pay its share for the study, but not fund the portion analyzing a specified high school district for the Chesters and Mendhams. On the other side, Mendham Township and Chester Borough would fund the study, excluding the portions pertaining to the mega K-12 analysis.
On Tuesday at the meeting of the Chester Township mayor and council, resident JoAnn Kruse addressed Cogger expressing concerns about a serious degradation in the quality of education in Mendham High School, and said she felt frustration at the process, which seemed to be stalling.
Cogger said he shared the frustrations at the process.
“I would go forward with this tomorrow, but I want all the towns on the same page,” Cogger said. “I don’t know why we can’t get Mendham Township on board. We poked, we prodded. I know in Chester Borough Bob Davis is on board, but his council isn’t.”
As to the quality of the education in the school slipping, Cogger disagreed.
“I spoke to the superintendent of the regional school and if you look at the HSPA scores, we’re second in the state in reading and writing I don’t think we have an education problem,” Cogger said. “I think we have a segment of people who have taken selective information and twisted it to bring rise to an issue which I am happy to address.”
Susan Sullivan asked Cogger about supporting the mega K-12 option.
“A combined school system seems to benefit Washington Township,” Sullivan said. “Which is why they are pushing it.”
Cogger disagreed with that characterization.
“They aren’t pushing. I’ve been sitting in the meetings and they aren’t pushing that. I would give Ken Short a lot of credit. He’s remained cool and is willing to examine everything. I don’t think anyone thinks a mega K-12 is the solution, but you need to include it so you can find the economies,” Cogger said. “I see no gain in being ignorant. I see no gain in not looking at every angle.”
Chester Township representative to the regional board Marcia Asdal addressed Cogger and reiterated it seemed as if Washington Township wanted the mega district study, but acknowledged that if the choice was studying it and letting the entire process derail, studying it was the better choice.
“I would focus on getting that study done and getting the information out to the taxpayers,” Asdal said.
“I need your help. Talk to your friends in the borough,” Cogger said. “I think if there was four agreed I think Mendham Township would come along eventually.”
Cogger also took issue with the suggestion that Washington Township be excluded from the process.
"I don’t ignore business partners. Its unethical and inappropriate. You can’t turn your back on them after being in business with them for 58 years,” Cogger said. “No one wants this to go away more than I do. But it has to go away the right way.”
The next regional school meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at the Washington Township Municipal Building on Oct. 30.