As most residents in New Jersey know, we have some of the best schools in the country. In fact, according to a study by US News and World Report, New Jersey comes in second place, after Massachusetts, for it's outstanding school systems. For many of us, it gives us a reason to remain living here, despite the high cost of living, property tax rates, commute times, etc.

On September 26, voters in Newton will have a choice to make about the direction we would like to see for our beloved schools: a referendum will be proposed to create a pre-k through 8th grade school at the Merriam Avenue School site, which will require an expansion of Merriam, and the closure of our outdated, historic Halsted Middle School.

Unfortunately, our district cannot afford to keep Halsted opened, and here's why, from the Newton Board of Education website: "Renovations and maintenance would need to be added to the operating budget by raising taxes and/or reducing student programs. The site has limitations which cannot be corrected. Old infrastructure, limited parking, traffic issues, and lack of green fields and community spaces will continue to be problems. A future referendum will likely be more costly. Bond rates are at historic lows, construction costs tend to rise, and the State has approved funds to subsidize the project now. These conditions are not guaranteed in the coming years."

The state of New Jersey has authorized the closure of Halsted. To bring Halsted "up to code" is too costly for our already burdened taxpayers.Creating a pre-k through 8th grade community school at Merriam is the best solution for Newton schools. Community schools function as neighborhood centers, allowing for people living in the district to receive services they may need in one place. Almost 50 percent of our students are receiving reduced lunch. It is no surprise that many of our students are considered at risk. 40 percent of our households fall into the ALICE category (Asset-limited, Income Restrained, Employed). The community school model will help support our residents and their children.

The proposed consolidation of Sussex County school district is a different issue, that has no relationship to the referendum. Realistically, such a plan could take many years to implement, if ever, but may be worth considering at some point. Today, we need to focus on Newton Schools, our children, and the delivery of the best possible education to them.

I am asking voters to come out with a "Yes" for the referendum. It will cost you less than a dollar per day. If we wait, it may cost you far more down the road. We need to keep New Jersey's second place ranking of best school system in the country, and this referendum will help! After all, at this point, it's the best thing we've got. All of our kids deserve it.

Meghan Gill

Newton