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Chesilhurst educator fights to save his school

As he leads a tour of Foster Elementary School, Chesilhurst School Superintendent Abdi Gass appears almost to lose his breath as he lists the building's amenities.

As he leads a tour of Foster Elementary School, Chesilhurst School Superintendent Abdi Gass appears almost to lose his breath as he lists the building's amenities.

New machines line the computer lab, and $3,000 touch-screen blackboards stand ready in the classrooms. The smell of fresh paint fills the hallways.

In quiet offices, employees file paperwork for construction work on a school that housed students for six months - and might never do so again.

But Gass remains optimistic.

"We have to be ready for when the students return," he said. "I wasn't an accountant for nothing. You have to utilize your resources, and everything the teachers needed, I gave them."

Less than a year after agreeing to send the more than 100 students who attended Foster to the neighboring Winslow School District, Gass and the Chesilhurst school board are campaigning to reopen the district's lone school.

"We were just talking about expanding shared services. Winslow was supposed to have some programs here, but that never materialized," said the school board vice president, Sharika Munford. "We didn't have any idea they were going to close the school."

But their move to reopen Foster has raised eyebrows across the town, including in Borough Hall.

Mayor Michael Blunt, who petitioned this summer to keep the school open, is calling for Gass and the school board to resign.

"They've never been honest. It's always three different answers to every question," Blunt said. Gass 'is feeling the pressure of being in a school without students. He knows he's going to be out of a job."

After the school ceded its students to Winslow last March, the New Jersey Department of Education declared it "nonoperating," which Gass said he had not anticipated. The district, already facing a bleak future, was effectively put on death watch in July when the state Education Department announced all "nonoperating" districts were to be shut down by the end of June 2010.

Two years ago, Gov. Corzine signed legislation requiring school districts to cut costs through a two-pronged approach: sharing services with other districts and eventually merging. No estimates have been announced on how many of the state's 603 districts will be closed, but those districts operating only elementary or middle schools - as Chesilhurst had been until June - have been singled out as likely targets by state officials.

With Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie's vocal support for consolidation on the campaign trail in the summer, the process is only expected to continue when he takes office in January.

But the situation in Chesilhurst, the first casualty of New Jersey's school consolidation plan to fight back, could offer a glimpse into the struggle state education officials will face.

The state Office of Administrative Law, a quasi-judicial body that considers disagreements between government bodies, is considering a petition to reopen Foster, which could give the district a stay of execution.

Gass, a Somali-born accountant turned educator, was hired by the Chesilhurst district in 2003 to turn around the elementary school after it failed to meet minimum state testing standards for two years running.

"When I started, I was scared to death I would fail," Gass said. "I brought in consultants to help the teachers, to show them new techniques. But any change will take between 31/2 and five years. You have to make sure it takes root and sustains."

In 2008, the school not only met state standards, it equaled or exceeded the state average in four of six testing categories.

But those successes were quickly overshadowed by budgetary concerns.

The school district, like others across the state, fell under pressure from state education officials to cut expenses, including an order in January not to fill two vacant teaching positions, Gass said.

Then in April 2009, much to the shock of the town's residents, the school board voted to send students to Winslow.

According to Gass, the decision followed a meeting he attended a month earlier with Camden County School Superintendent Peggy Nicolosi and officials from the Winslow district.

"They rearranged my budget and said, 'We're forcing you to send your kids to Winslow,' " Gass recalls. "When I stepped outside, I asked my lawyer, 'What do we do now?' "

Nicolosi declined to be interviewed, citing pending litigation. A spokesman for the Education Department disputed Gass' account, writing that "any discussions at the meeting were related to questions the county superintendent had about the proposed budgets."

Among many residents of the town, a small, historically black community on the edge of the Pine Barrens, the reversal on the decision to close Foster has incited anger and suspicion. But whether they support Gass and the school board or not, there is a general consensus the transition into Winslow has been a bad deal for the students.

They report a general lack of planning that has resulted in large class sizes and problems with bus transportation, among other issues.

Carla Ortiz-Lyles, who moved to Chesilhurst 10 years ago, said she had pulled her daughter out of elementary school in Winslow and hoped to do the same with her son next year.

"Here, it was a small classroom setting. The teachers had no trouble getting in touch with you. They were personable," she said. "Now the kids get onto a bus with a bunch of strangers. I feel like they threw our children to the wolves."

While the matter remains before the court, Gass said, he plans to continue his campaign and hopes to get the question of returning students to Chesilhurst on the ballot in the town election in April.

He recently had the school secretary mail about 750 questionnaires and set up a robo-call device to call residents and ask if they would support reopening the school.

He received only 58 responses and agitated a number of residents in the process, but Gass happily reported that 71 percent of the responses were positive.

"The parents are behind us," he said. "What are you doing to do, just throw the school away?"