With 2021 in the rearview mirror, here are some of the most noteworthy happenings in the borough school district this past year.
• The Board of Education proposed a nearly $15 million referendum to fund various capital improvements. The referendum was defeated by voters, 433 to 341, in the Dec. 14 special election, according to tallies released by the Somerset County Clerk’s Office. Those counts included mail-in votes.
The referendum would have paid for well-ventilated environments with improved HVAC filtering systems, replace failing building systems, reduce energy costs, invest in improved security, upgrade facilities to provide contemporary workspaces, enhance accessibility for people with physical disabilities, and update technology infrastructure.
The state would have funded 34 percent of the costs, or $4,885,617, having deemed 96 percent of the projects eligible for debt service aid. Based on the assessed average home value of $730,568, the tax impact would’ve been $267 a year.
The antiquated HVAC systems ran the risk of failing, and the school district did not have enough money in its capital reserve to replace them. Several board members noted that if the referendum doesn’t pass, the project costs would fall completely on the Watchung taxpayers.
Days before the referendum, an anonymous mailer was sent to all borough residents by the “Concerned Citizens for Watchung Education” that urged voters to reject the referendum. The flier argued that the referendum was “vaguely defined, premature and not academically oriented.”
• Amber Murad and Michelle Posehn were sworn in to the Board of Education on Jan. 7 to fill three-year terms. Posehn had already served for three months on the board following Joseph Mattiassi’s resignation. Murad joined the school governing body in late October 2020 after Mallory Morales resigned. In the 2021 general election, Murad unsuccessfully ran for a Somerset County Commissioner seat as a Republican candidate.
• Third and fourth graders at Bayberry Elementary School were able to say goodbye to their hybrid cohorts and join their younger peers in attending school five days a week beginning in February.
Kindergartners at the elementary school were allowed to attend school five half-days per week since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Meanwhile, first and second graders returned to five half-days in October following the merging of those grades’ cohorts. Enrollment at the time enabled the district to merge the two cohorts while maintaining six-foot social distancing, which ultimately allowed students to return to in-person learning for five half-days.
Returning to in-person learning came as long awaited good news for parents, who had raised concerns about the quality of education their children were receiving remotely the days they weren’t in school. The grades K-8 school district expanded the in-person school day for all students in April.
• The Watchung Board of Education unanimously passed its vaccination policy on Oct. 14. Gov. Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 253 on Aug. 23 that required all grades PreK-12 personnel to be vaccinated.
The executive order dictated that all “covered workers” must receive the COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 18 or be subject to testing at a minimum of one to two times each week. “Covered workers” include administrators, teachers, educational support professionals, custodial, substitute teachers, contractors. Murphy’s executive order on faculty vaccinations also applied to anyone volunteering in the district.
After the Oct. 18 deadline, Watchung School Superintendent George Alexis reported that 82 percent of district employees were vaccinated. Of the district’s 130 covered workers, 21 staff members have opted to undergo weekly testing. The borough school district has been using the state-contracted vendor Mirimus for COVID-19 testing.