Final Town Hall Meeting on School Referendum Wednesday in Surf City

By Gina G. Scala | Nov 12, 2019

Surf City — Less than a month remains before voters in five Island communities will be asked to determine the outcome of a proposed $7.68 million project to rehab the LBI Grade School in Ship Bottom. On Wednesday, Nov. 13, LBI Consolidated School District officials are slated to present the plan before the Surf City Borough Council and members of the public for the final time before the Dec. 10 referendum.

The meeting, which is being hosted by the council, is set for 6:30 p.m. in the municipal meeting room at borough hall. The start time is one hour earlier than normal council meetings.

School officials have held three other town-hall style meetings on the referendum issue, which continues to draw opposition from members of the community who want to save the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School from what they believe is its certain fate: closure and student consolidation into the LBI School. Tonight’s meeting, however, is the first in the wake of last week’s school board election. Incumbent board Vice President Bonnie Picaro, a proponent of the referendum, was outpaced by newcomer Brielle Hoffacker. Voters in Barnegat Light returned incumbent Marilyn Wasilewski to her seat on the consolidated school board. Wasilewski, along with Collette Southwick, Kristy Raber and James Donahower, the last of whom ran unopposed for a seat on the Southern Regional Board of Education, voted against moving forward with the referendum. Donahower did not run for re-election to the LBI school board.

With Hoffacker and Donahower’s replacement for Harvey Cedars, who has not yet been confirmed by county election officials, it’s unclear what direction the new board will take when it convenes in January, especially if the voters approve the referendum next month.

What is clear, at least at first glance, is that nowhere in the bond proposal, which can be found on the district’s website under the referendum tab, does the word “binding” appear. A binding referendum means the board would be obligated to adhere to the outcome. The district’s bond proposal was written by its bond counsel using words that are required by state statute, board President William Fenimore said earlier this week.

Whether a statute is mandatory or optional is dependent on intent, which comes from examining the context in which the words appear, according to an April 1962 decision by the Supreme Court of New Jersey in the case of Durgin v. Brown, in which then state Chief Justice Joseph Weintraub cited a case dating back to 1860.

“So, the word ‘authorize’ has been found to be peremptory,” Weintraub wrote in the 1962 decision, meaning that if voters approve the LBI School referendum the rehab project is a go.

With that in mind, the consolidated school board is “authorized to provide for various renovations, alterations, improvements and upgrades at Long Beach Island Grade School, including related work, fixtures, equipment and site work; to appropriate $7,680,516 for such improvements; and to issue bonds of the School District in the principal amount of $7,680,516,” according to its bond proposal.

A non-binding referendum is a means local government may use, but does not need to avail. However, in the case of Durgin v. Brown, which pitted two factions of the Westwood Consolidated school board against each other and the public, a referendum was required. Under state law, a school district seeking bonds for capital improvements to existing buildings and for new construction must go to referendum.

In the case of Durgin v. Brown, the court upheld an earlier decision mandating that the Board of Education of the Westwood Consolidated School District build a senior high school and declared a resolution the board ordered its attorney to prepare for dissolving the district to be unsound.

It was the opinion of the Supreme Court that “the time for the Board’s decision upon such matters was before the vote. When the voters approved the proposals, the debate upon policy was ended.”

Still, the court conceded extraordinary or unexpected events that would nullify the outcome of a referendum.

“But to rehash the merits of the policy decision which was submitted to the electorate and to decline to fulfill its will because the same or new members of the Board now prefer another program is something else,” the 1962 decision reads in part.

Whether the Durgin v. Brown case was the catalyst for a motion seeking to table the LBI School referendum until after the Nov. 5 school board election isn’t known. The motion failed in September. At the time, Anthony Sciarrillo, the district’s longtime attorney, said the board’s decisions are applicable only through the end of the year.

Roughly a decade ago, when school board elections were still held in April and the public was still asked to approve or reject school budgets, the LBI Consolidated budget was defeated. As a result, there was a $400,000 budget cut and subsequent recommendation to consolidate the elementary schools to counteract the funding loss. Since then, every board has spent a considerable amount of time and money on plans for the eventual consolidation of all staff and students into one building.

It wasn’t until last month that the board agreed to temporarily suspend a June decision to develop a plan to relocate the entire student body and staff from the E.J. School, effectively putting to rest all discussions about consolidation until after the December referendum for renovations to the LBI School.

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the school board is Tuesday, Nov. 19, in the media center at the LBI School, 20th Street and Central Avenue in Ship Bottom. It starts at 7 p.m.

— Gina G. Scala

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