Possible Lifeline for New Jersey School of Conservation as Takeover Is Sought

But if no one expresses interest, Montclair State University looks to close the school in September
Credit: NJSOC
Aerial view of the New Jersey School of Conservation in Stokes State Forest

The New Jersey School of Conservation won a reprieve of sorts.

Located on a 240-acre tract in Stokes State Forest, the school averted closing permanently when Montclair State University, the overseer of the school since 1981, put out a request for expression of interest for any organization or institution to take over that role.

If no one expresses any interest in the proposal Montclair offered on June 25, or if the proposal falls short of what the university is seeking, the school would close permanently on Sept. 1 unless the state steps in to rescue the school, an iffy proposition given the fiscal pressures facing the government in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But advocates of what is the oldest and largest environmental field center in the nation said they viewed the decision by Montclair State to seek interest from other institutions in running the school as a positive step.

“There’s a possibility the school will continue,’’ said Kerry Kirk Pflugh, president of the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation, an organization that plans to submit a proposal to Montclair. The organization has been trying to raise money for that intent, but it is far short of its $1 million goal.

“This has been a small win because of the public outcry to keep the School of Conservation open,’’ agreed Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We now have two months for groups and colleagues to collaborate and come up with a plan to manage the school.’’

Hurdles to overcome

The hurdles, however, seem huge to keeping the 71-year-old school open and running. According to the proposed expression of interest by Montclair, annual expenses for the school run about $2 million for a typical year, while the school pulls in a revenue of approximately $600,000, leaving a deficit of about $1.4 million annually.

Credit: NJSOC
At the New Jersey School of Conservation in June 2019

In addition, a lake on the property needs lowering and dredging, which has been put off for 20 years; many of the cabins where students reside need roof replacements, and a wastewater treatment plant and water systems require maintenance that totals $108,000 annually.

Montclair State did not respond to calls for comment. It announced it could not afford to run the school this spring, citing cuts in state aid and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The conservation school has a couple dozen buildings constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression that can accommodate up to 200 people. Initially, the school focused on preparing soon-to-be teachers on science and environmental education, but branched out to provide elementary school students with an introduction to environmental stewardship. Up to 6,000 students attend courses there each year.

All the staff of the school have been laid off, although they will be paid until early August, according to Pflugh, whose father was the fifth director of the school. She said her group plans to meet with other organizations to try to put together a collaborative to save the school.

“We’re hopeful. We are looking to partner with others,’’ she said, adding her organization is planning to join a July 9 walk-through of the property to see the extent of renovations needed.