Court date set on issue of pupils at Navy base

Colts Neck & Tinton Falls school officials wrangling over student assignment

BY KENNY WALTER Staff Writer

Tinton Falls officials are taking issue with a report issued by the U.S. Navy which states that children who may eventually live in private housing at Naval Weapons Station Earle in Colts Neck will attend school in Tinton Falls.

Children who may live at the Laurelwood housing area on the naval base will physically be residing in Colts Neck.

At issue is which public school district or districts those children will be assigned to attend.

Officials in Tinton Falls and Colts Neck have been at odds over that issue ever since the Navy announced that the Laurelwood housing will be converted from housing for military families to housing that is open to anyone.

The switch to the unrestricted housing is expected to occur in about one year.

A court date has been scheduled for July 25 on the matter.

At the present time, the children of Navy personnel who reside on the base — and physically live in Colts Neck — attend school in Tinton Falls.

The Navy is proceeding with plans to privatize 300 housing units at NWS Earle under an agreement with the developer of the Laurelwood housing area.

In a report issued May 22, the Navy states that there would be a significant impact on the schools in Tinton Falls as a result of that change.

“Significant impacts … are anticipated at the Mahala Atchison Elementary School, the Swimming River Elementary School and the Tinton Falls Middle School as a result of an increased number of school-age children being sent to these schools under the proposed action,” the press release states. “Specific impacts include physical capacity impacts, class size increases, additional school bus costs and the potential need for additional faculty.”

The Navy’s stance on educating children who will be living at the Laurelwood housing was contained in a Record of Decision for the Laurelwood Housing Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that announced the Navy’s decision to provide an unimpeded access road from Route 34 to the housing area. The report estimates that additional an nual costs to the Tinton Falls and Monmouth Regional school districts will be close to $2 million and $500,000, respectively. The report also projects that the amount of federal impact aid will decrease.

Under the terms of an agreement with the U.S. Navy, for nearly 20 years the Tinton Falls K-8 School District has educated the children of Naval personnel stationed at Earle, and has received funding from the federal government to do so.

When they reach high school age, the children of the Navy personnel attend Monmouth Regional High School, which is in Tinton Falls and comprises the Monmouth Regional School District.

Tinton Falls Board of Education President Peter Karavites said the Tinton Falls School District made the request to educate the children of Naval personnel 19 years ago, but has never made a request for any students but Navy children.

“The state law says that you have to request the kids to get them,” Karavites said. “Tinton Falls requested nothing but Navy children 19 years ago.”

U.S. Navy Lt. Laura Stegherr said the Navy would not be the party making the final decision on the issue of where children who live in the Laurelwood housing will attend school.

“The Navy cannot be the deciding factor,” she said. “It is really for the state and local legislators to decide.”

A decision that the Laurelwood children are Colts Neck’s responsibility would impact the Colts Neck K-8 School District and the Freehold Regional High School District.

State legislators who represent the 12th District opposed the privatization of housing units on the Navy base, based on security concerns.

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon said the Navy should not be commenting on where students who live at NWS Earle will attend school.

“The Navy has no business saying where these kids are going,” O’Scanlon said. “I don’t understand it.”

O’Scanlon’s view is that officials in Colts Neck and Tinton Falls should reach a consensus on the issues.

“Our job is to get everyone working together and to get the best answer for everybody,” O’Scanlon said. “Tinton Falls has every right to find out what the interpretation of the law is.”

O’Scanlon said he does not think either school district (Colts Neck or Tinton Falls) is equipped to handle the additional students who might come from the Laurelwood housing.

“Neither one can handle the impact,” O’Scanlon said. “Every school board and municipality is at the breaking point.”

O’Scanlon faults the Navy for opting to allow privatization of some housing units at NWS Earle, which was part of its agreement with the developer.

“It’s just a lousy decision,” O’Scanlon said. “The whole thing is a bad idea.”

The housing units to be privatized, known as Laurelwood Gardens, are in Colts Neck, but the Colts Neck Board of Education claims the Tinton Falls School District is obligated to educate any new students, military or civilian, who reside on the base.

Tinton Falls is currently educating about 80 Navy children, but Karavites expects the number of children to rise once the housing units become private.

“There are about 78 or 80 Navy children going to Tinton Falls (schools) right now,” Karavites said. “There are 300 housing units with two, three or four bedrooms, so that could be anywhere between 100 and 300 kids.”

According to the Navy, school-age children at the naval base, including those living at Laurelwood Gardens, could total about 272.

The Tinton Falls Board of Education filed a lawsuit against the Monmouth County superintendent of schools and the New Jersey commissioner of education last year that maintains the district’s agreement is to educate the children of Navy personnel, and not civilian children who may live on the military base.

A court date has been set for July 25 in the matter.

“The Tinton Falls Board of Education is very confident that the decision made will be made in favor of Tinton Falls,” Karavites said. “For anyone who sees any of the papers, this is a no-brainer. But when politics and New Jersey work hand in hand, this is what happens.”