FREEHOLD – A four-year effort to address student overcrowding in the Freehold Borough K-8 School District has reached a conclusion with the opening of new and renovated areas in the district’s two facilities.
A ribbon cutting ceremony at each location was held on Dec. 4 to mark the completion of a $33 million construction project to expand the Freehold Learning Center elementary school on Dutch Lane Road and the Park Avenue Complex, which houses the Park Avenue Elementary School and the Freehold Intermediate School.
The expansions and renovations are intended to address student overcrowding issues. At present, there are 1,680 students enrolled in the district, an increase of 317 children from 2007. Prior to the construction project, the facilities had a capacity for 1,148 students.
With the completion of the project, the two facilities now have a capacity for 1,589 students. While the increase does not account for every student, administrators said the improvements will put less of a strain on the district’s classrooms.
District administrators said four additions, among other work, were constructed at the Park Avenue Complex, which totaled 22,790 square feet. Those additions are:
- A 17,200-square-foot addition that includes three sixth grade general classrooms, rest rooms, a library media center with support offices and a computer instruction area, a gymnasium and a girls locker room;
- A 4,500-square-foot addition that includes a cafeteria expansion, kitchen support and receiving area, one eighth grade general classroom and an electrical room;
- A 640-square-foot addition that includes a technology department office and a storage room;
- A 450-square-foot addition that includes a reception and waiting area for the Park Avenue Elementary School, a main entrance secure vestibule with direct access to the new main office reception area and a freestanding canopy.
According to district administrators, three additions were constructed at the Freehold Learning Center, among other work, which totaled 19,850 square feet. The additions are:
- A 10,400-square-foot addition includes four pre-kindergarten classrooms and two kindergarten classrooms, each with a self-contained rest room and storage room, an occupational therapy/physical therapy room and a kindergarten resource room;
- An 8,100-square-foot addition includes five kindergarten classrooms, each with a self-contained rest room and storage room, a kindergarten resource room and an electrical room;
- A 1,350-square-foot addition includes a new kitchen with a storage room, a receiving room, an office a locker alcove and a restroom to serve the cafeteria.
“These ribbon cutting ceremonies mark the successful culmination of a multi-year effort to address the critical facility needs of our students,” Superintendent of Schools Rocco Tomazic said. “We are most appreciative to our parents, community and legislative leaders, past and present, who worked so hard to make this day a reality. Our students will be well served decades into the future.”
During the ceremonies, Tomazic noted that the student overcrowding occurred at the same time the district began to receive flat funding from the state, causing Freehold Borough to become underfunded.
As a result, district administrators sought approval for the construction projects from voters with two referendums in late 2014. Voters rejected both referendums.
After the referendums were defeated, the Board of Education appealed to the state. In its petition to the state, the board said the overcrowded conditions were preventing the district from providing a thorough and efficient education to students.
In 2016, then Commissioner of Education David Hespe approved the proposed construction projects and issued a grant to the district from the Schools Development Authority (SDA) to pay for the additions that were part of the original referendums and authorized the issuance of bonds for the costs of the renovations and the capital project.
“We were advised against going to the state because nothing of this size had been approved before,” Tomazic said. “We were told we were wasting our time, but we had no choice. We had to do it for the children.”
“We (the SDA) are happy to be involved in the funding of this project,” said Lizette Delgado Polanco, the chief executive officer of the SDA. “There are too many schools that are not meeting the needs of our children and we have more work to do, but this is a step in the right direction.”
Construction at both locations began in 2017 and was completed on schedule by the end of this year.
“This project is a testament to progress, the commitment and determination of Superintendent Tomazic, Business Administrator Joseph Howe and the board, and that doing the right thing is worth the effort,” said Michael Lichardi, president of the Board of Education. “We have a tendency to lack appreciation for where we learn, which is just as important as what we learn.”
Lichardi and state Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth) emphasized the importance of the environment students learn in, remarking that prior to the expansion, boxes were used to separate classroom space in the Freehold Learning Center.
“This a wonderful project that is a big lesson for all our children,” Downey said. “It shows we care about them. We need better for the students and we’re not done yet. We are going to continue to walk together and fight together as we continue to get more money.”
The ribbon at the Park Avenue Complex was cut by sixth grade student Olivia Edmonds, who had testified about being in a crowded space during the appeal process before state officials. As a third grade pupil, Olivia described that she disliked how her younger sister was attending kindergarten in a different school.
“Thank you to all who made this possible,” Freehold Borough Mayor Nolan Higgins said. “This project is the result of countless hours of advocacy and another milestone in our development.”