BOE: Northern Highlands Doesn’t Want MPK Students
By Rebecca K. Abma
Midland Park Junior Senior High
An informal meeting between Midland Park and Northern
Highlands Regional school officials suggests the regional high school is not
interested in taking borough students, School Board President Bill Sullivan
announced at last Tuesday’s meeting.
“About five months ago, [Schools Superintendent] Dr. [Marie] Cirasella and I met with our counterparts at Northern Highlands. I asked three pointed questions: Would they be interested in working with us? Do they have room to accommodate our students? And, could they offer our students the same educational program currently offered to their students,” Sullivan said. “They replied they could not give an answer at that point, and would have to get back to us.”
Attempts to follow up with Northern Highland officials were unsuccessful, he said. “At this point, I have to assume they aren’t interested.”
According to Board Trustee Bob Schiffer, who was not at the meeting with Northern Highlands, officials from the regional high school said they couldn’t guarantee Midland Park students would be given the same educational opportunities offered to their current students.
“If I’m a second-class citizen while we are courting, how’s it going to be once we’re married,” he said, noting that it was implied that Midland Park students wouldn’t be given priority for AP classes, athletics or extra curricular activities. Midland Park also would not have any representation on the regional school board.
The Northern Highlands meeting took place between Sullivan, Cirasella and School Board Administrator Stacy Garvey with their counterparts at Northern Highland.
“This was an informal meeting where neither district had a quorum present and thus no formal action could have been taken,” Sullivan explained in an interview after the BOE meeting. “With that in mind, no meeting minutes were kept.”
Earlier this year, school officials reached out to other districts at the request of several parents who expressed concern that the small district cannot offer students the same variety of programs as larger nearby districts. The seventh through 12th grade Junior-Senior High School had 526 students in the 2011-12 school year.
In addition to Northern Highland, similar informal meetings were held with officials in Ridgewood and Waldwick districts. According to Sullivan, Ridgewood officials said they did not have room for Midland Park students.
Waldwick was not interested in hosting Midland Park students, however, officials expressed interest in expanding existing collaborations between the two districts. Currently, the two districts share football, cheerleading and wrestling teams that compete under Waldwick colors — a reversal from when Waldwick students attended Midland Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Dr. Cirasella reported the two districts are developing a pilot “Share & Grow Learning Partnership” to start in the 2014-15 school year. The program would allow seniors at each school to enroll in extra curricular activities at the others high school, Dr. Cirasella explained, noting that the state is “very supportive” of the initiate and willing to help iron out any technical or logistical issues.
While the program will initially be opened only to seniors, who often have access to their own transportation, the districts would explore expanding it to younger grades if it is successful.
Exploring Other Options
At Tuesday night’s meeting, parents asked what other districts will be explored, but officials expressed they were done.
“As far as I'm concerned, it’s been given all the priority it’s due,” Sullivan said.
“It is as important for people who are interested in pursuing send-receive/regionalization as it is for those who are not,” one parent told the board. “When it comes time to spend money to fix our school facilities, people aren’t going to be willing to give the money if they think there still may be a more cost-effective way of educating our children.”
Officials say sending Midland Park high school students out of district for high school would be more expensive than people realize. “I have run the financials of what it would cost and I don’t see it saving money to go to another district,” Schiffer said.
Parents, however, would like to have an objective, independent study performed. “People will consider the information more trustworthy if it doesn’t come from someone on the board,” a parent noted.
“Parents seem to think we can just knock down the high school and sell it for 10 lots, but that isn’t going to happen,” Schiffer said in an interview after the meeting. “You are not going to be able to close the [high school] campus. What are you going to do with the kids in seventh and eighth grade?”
In addition, he said, the cost of busing would be prohibitive. “We would need to buy 10 to 15 buses, and pay the salaries and benefits for all those bus drivers, and a director of transportation,” Schiffer said.
Parent support for Midland Park joining the Northern Highlands Regional School District is not new. According to people familiar with the issue, factions of parents have been clamoring to join the regional district for decades. Northern Highlands, which currently includes students from Allendale, Ho-Ho-Kus, Saddle River and Upper Saddle River, has consistently ranked among the top schools in New Jersey since its founding in 1966.
Prior to Ho-Ho-Kus joining the regional district in the mid-1990s, its students attended Midland Park High School for more than 20 years. But, even before Ho-Ho-Kus students first crossed the threshold of Midland Park High School in 1973, class issues arose.
At the time Ho-Ho-Kus students were attending Ridgewood schools, and in 1969, the two districts considered a regionalization proposal, which failed to garner voter support in either town. According to an April 29, 1973, New York Times article*, the failed merger effectively terminated a 75-year agreement between the two districts. When Ridgewood notified Ho-Ho-Kus that it would no longer accept its incoming students due to space constraints, Ho-Ho-Kus was turned down by a number of districts it wanted to join. The state Board of Education stepped in and directed Ho-Ho-Kus to send students to Midland Park.
The decision was a boon for Midland Park, which was a facing a decline in enrollment after losing Waldwick students, but Ho-Ho-Kus residents were critical of Midland Park facilities and curriculum. Parents took the issue to the courts.
“The disparity of the two communities is an underlying element in the conflict,” the New York Times articles stated. “Midland Park, with a population of a little more than 8,000 is a borough of small, neat homes and shops, a place where the thrifty Dutch heritage is evident and the Reformed church is a strong influence. Ho-Ho-Kus, about the same size of Midland Park but with just over half its population, is a town of homes in the $50,000-plus range. The residents, largely executives and professional people, out-spokenly fear that Midland Park may not be as willing as they to pay for the standard of education they want.”
According to Schiffer, who has served on the Midland Park BOE since 1986, the court cases continued up to the Federal Court of Appeals, which eventually allowed Ho-Ho-Kus to leave Midland Park for Northern Highland in the mid-1990s.
No Invitation for Midland Park
The Midland Park Press spoke with more than a dozen current and former school officials, and despite rumors to the contrary, Northern Highlands has never issued an invitation to Midland Park to join the regional district. (Editor’s Note: Anyone with information to the contrary who is willing to speak on the record, please contact Rebecca@mpkpress.com.)
“Never in my recollection has Northern Highlands invited us,” Schiffer said, adding that when Ho-Ho-Kus left, parents suggested that Midland Park join them, but the discussion was never taken up at the board level. “I don’t recall Northern Highlands ever coming to us and saying we’d love to have you.”
“To my knowledge, Northern Highlands has not invited Midland Park to join their district in the past,” said Garvey, who has worked in the Midland Park Board office since the 2008-09 school year.
“The Midland Park Board of Education has always tried to stay strong and develop our high school,” Schiffer added. “I have sat on this board for a long time and I have no hidden agenda. My purpose for being on the board is for the children of this town. I believe every one of our kids deserves to get a great education, and Midland Park schools provide them with it. I would never vote for our students to leave the district. I don’t want our children treated as second-class citizens.”
The class issues that plagued the Midland Park and Ho-Ho-Kus agreement in the '70s and '80s has continued to grow. In the 1970s, the income gap between Midland Park and Ho-Ho-Kus was an average of $13,845 for Midland Park and $23,364 for Ho-Ho-Kus, the New York Times article stated. According to the 2010 Census, Midland Park’s median household income is $81,294 compared to $161,761 in Ho-Ho-Kus. For the other towns in Northern Highlands, median income levels range from $126,804 in Allendale to $180,429 in Upper Saddle River.
The 2010 Census also shows a disparity in home values between Midland Park and the towns in the Northern Highland school system. Midland Park’s median home value is $482,000 while the regional school’s towns median home values range from $721,600 to $1 million plus.
*Editor's Note: A PDF of the New York Times article, “High School Merger in Doubt: Some Comparisons Alternative Bases,” dated April 29, 1973, can be accessed through bccls.org with a valid library card.