Joint Taxpayers Group Unveils School Comparisons Ahead of December Referendum

Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association: Document ‘Designed to Mislead’
By Gina G. Scala | Nov 13, 2019

Surf City — The Joint Council of Taxpayers Associations of Long Beach Island has done what some call the impossible: aggregated a school-by-school comparison of the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School and the LBI Grade School ahead of a $7.68 million referendum slated to go before voters in five Island communities next month.

The 11-page document, which can be found here, was amassed over time by members of the JCTA in an effort to address a need many in the community believe exists for voters to make an educated decision at the polls Dec. 10.

“If we’re going to be a joint association, then we have to do things like this,” Eileen Schwartz, president of the High Bar Harbor Taxpayers Association, said of the school-by-school comparison. “We’re coming to a point where the state is going to remove (local) input” from what happens to elementary school districts.

In September, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration reaffirmed its commitment to helping school districts, municipalities and counties that want to share services or study consolidation. The state Department of Community Affairs is charged with administering $10 million in funding for studies. There is some local interest in participating in a consolidation study, too. Pinelands Regional School District officials reached out to the state and the Ocean County Superintendent of Schools, saying it was interested in applying for study funding.

“The efforts announced here today enhance our administration’s ability to guide and encourage our state’s diverse communities that are interested in pursuing consolidation and shared services,” Murphy said at the time.

Bill Hutson, president of the JCTA, said the document was “heavily debated” among members in an effort to produce an unbiased and neutral comparison of the schools.

However, the Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association does not endorse the document, according to Robert Danna and Kathy Ries, both trustees. In a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, they said the document is filled with irrelevant, misleading and erroneous information.

“It’s designed to distract and mislead,” Ries said.

Danna received a response from the school board to a letter he wrote that he said shows there are inaccuracies in the JCTA document. He and Ries said the information contained in the document should be released through the school board.

Ries said the school-by-school comparison is biased in favor of the referendum.

While not entirely comfortable with the document, the Barnegat Light Taxpayers Association is committed to providing the information to its members, said Barbara Truncellito, association president.

“It’s not complete,” she said Tuesday afternoon, adding the joint group did the best it could with the information it had at hand. “Our position on the referendum is that we don’t have a position.”

A majority of the school board approved a motion to move forward with plans to upgrade the LBI School in September. As it currently stands, the cost breakdown of the repairs is $3 million for structural repair to the 1950s-era building, $1.5 million for HVAC improvements, roughly $1.1 million for electrical and plumbing improvements (divided between $113,000 for safety and structural purposes and $976,000 for improvements), $800,000 for Americans with Disabilities Act improvements, $471,500 in professional fees (architect, engineer, etc.) and $450,000 in contingency costs.

“There’s no right or wrong, just different ways of seeing it. What we’ve done will help everyone,” Schwartz said, noting the school discussion isn’t the only large-scale Island-wide topic the group is tackling. “We’re involved in other things, like nuisance flooding. These kinds of issues are what we’re made for. We’re a service group.”

Under the proposed referendum, taxpayers with a home assessed at $300,000 can expect to see a school tax increase of $8, according to the presentation. It’s a $17 spike in school taxes for a home assessed at $600,000 and $28 for a $1 million assessed value home.

For months now, members of the public have asked for a side-by-side comparison of wants/needs to upgrade the two schools. The catalyst for the request, some say, is the comparison of the current referendum plan with the September 2017 plan to expand and upgrade the E.J. School.

That referendum was rejected by a vote of 2-to-1 in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City.  A total of $14.6 million was earmarked for the construction of eight new classrooms including science, technology, engineering and a math lab as well as an art room, gym and student services office. Another $3.6 million focused on essential renovations to the elementary school, including updating the heating, ventilation and cooling systems; replacing aging ceilings and electrical panels; and upgrading lighting for energy efficiency.

“This is apples to oranges,” James Donahower, the former board president from Harvey Cedars who was elected to the Southern Regional Board of Education last week, said of the 2017 and upcoming referendums during a special meeting in August. “We wanted a wow school (with what was proposed in 2017). That was a moon shot. This is a Band-Aid.”

— Gina G. Scala

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