Ethel Jacobsen School to Remain Open for 2019-20 School Year

Consolidation Plans Targeted for September Discussion
By GINA G. SCALA | Jun 26, 2019

Surf City — There are no plans to close the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School prior to the start of the 2019-20 school year in September, even as the Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education develops a plan to merge student and staff into one building at a future date.

In a 5-3-1 vote, the school board June 18 approved multiple motions, including a previous recommendation to have the consolidation plan in place by Sept. 1, which could pave the way for a $7.2 million December referendum for rehabbing the LBI Grade School. Board President William Fenimore, Vice President Bonnie Picaro, members Georgene Hartmann, Eileen Bowker and John McMenamin all voted yes. Board members Kristy Raber, Colette Southwick and Marilyn Wasilewski voted no on all matters pertaining to school consolidation and the facilities plan, which could lead to the December referendum. Board member James Donahower, whose seat representing Harvey Cedars is up this year, abstained.

Earlier this week, Fenimore said the consolidation plan should be ready in time for discussion at the September board meeting. What happens after the discussion is up to the discretion of the board, he said, noting he doesn’t anticipate, at this time, that the EJ School would be shuttered prior to the end of the 2019-20 school year.

Fenimore said the plan to merge student and staff into the LBI Grade School includes looking at not just whether it can be done, but how to fit everyone into the 1950s-era school. “Will there be a younger education wing,” he asked, “so the younger students still have a section of their own?”

Other issues to consider are class size, resource rooms and where to put an office for Frank Birney, the EJ School principal, if the board moves ahead with plans, he said.

While the LBI School is slated to undergo some updating this summer, including the heating and cooling systems as well as fixing the gym floor, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect everything to be ready in time for a September 2019 merger into the school. The work slated to be done this summer is considered a necessity regardless of any future decisions by the board, or the state, should a bill to consolidate all elementary districts into existing high school districts or new ones created by the county superintendent be approved by the Legislature.

The LBI school board has been working for years to find a solution for school consolidation that is fair to the community and doesn’t negatively impact students. In 2017, a previous school board asked voters to consider an $18.4 million referendum that focused on expanding and renovating the EJ School and shuttering the LBI School. The vote passed in Barnegat Light and Harvey Cedars, but was rejected by voters in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City.

“The goal is to move ahead,” Fenimore said, noting the board has been working since earlier this year on several fronts to prepare for a referendum, should it decide to go that route.

At one time, he said, he believed the district could maintain both elementary schools, but after sitting down with Christine Kelly, business administrator, he knows that is no longer possible. Consolidating into one school will save the district, and the taxpayers, money, he said.

Salaries and health benefits are among a list of increasing expenses that the 2-percent cap on school taxes can’t keep up with, Fenimore said, explaining why what is often perceived as one of the wealthier districts in the state, based on how school taxes are configured in New Jersey, can’t afford to keep two schools up and running.

At least one member of the public – who addressed the school board after a majority voted on school consolidation, facility project, submission to the state Department of Education, referendum preparation and the hiring of bond counsel – wants the district to work on consolidating into the EJ School.

The cost savings from shuttering one school has been cited between $500,000 and $700,000 by board members over the last few months. As for opting to keep the LBI Grade School versus the EJ School, Frank Little, the district’s engineer of record and a principal in Owen, Little & Associates, Beachwood, has said the district would receive about 40 percent in state aid for improvements to the LBI School because it’s a renovation project, not new construction.

“Why can’t we work to get the EJ (referendum) to pass?” Kerry Giacobbe, incoming PTA treasurer, asked during her comments to the board, questioning why the district can’t consolidate into that school for less than the initial $18.4 million price tag put before voters nearly two years ago.

Fenimore said he has to presume the previous school board exercised its fiduciary judgment when coming up with the cost of the EJ project voted on in the referendum.

“If it could have been done for $8 million, they wouldn’t have asked for $18 million,” he said earlier this week, noting the district looked into a lot of options before landing where it has. “You can’t come back now and say it could be done cheaper.”

Giacobbe argued the EJ School has more green space and was in a better location than the LBI Grade School.

“It’s not as nice a place,” she said of the LBI School before her five-minute time limit to address the board ran out.

The June 18 board meeting drew a crowd of nearly 100 people, including teachers, parents and some students. The second public comment section, set aside for individuals to address the board on any issue, lasted for nearly an hour.

Fenimore said there are other factors influencing the board’s decision beside moving away from the failed referendum, such as a renewed push from Stephen Sweeney, the state Senate president, to eliminate elementary districts. A bill requiring the county superintendent to establish a consolidation plan for all districts in the county, excluding preschool or K-12 districts, into all-purpose regional districts, was introduced in the state Senate May 16. The county plan must be completed within 12 months of the bill’s adoption, should that happen. The proposed measure includes a three-month window for all eligible districts to voluntarily adopt a plan for the formation of an all-purpose regional district or merge into an existing one.

“We’re trying to show the state that we’re doing something,” Fenimore said at the meeting in response to a young student who, along with her mother, asked questions during the second public comment period. “If we don’t show it, then LBI students could all be going to Stafford.”

School consolidation, which has been batted around in the state every few years since 1969, wasn’t as big a concern when a previous board decided to merge students and staff into the EJ School, had the 2017 referendum passed.

“We’re trying to do what we can to keep kids on LBI,” he said, noting if state legislators are successful there is a real risk schools, including the sole one in the Beach Haven Elementary School District, will go away. “We’re trying to find a solution. The previous (solution) didn’t have support.”

Fenimore’s comments were called scare tactics by some in the audience.

“The reality is this is what you created. I am going to keep an eye on you,” Kevin Phillips, a Barnegat Light resident told the board before thanking them for “awakening the community.”

His comments followed a discussion about the deed restriction on the EJ School, which would permit the borough of Surf City to purchase the site back for $35,000 plus 4-percent interest per year since the district assumed ownership of the land, according to John McMenamin, a Surf City representative on the board. In 2014, the late Surf City Mayor Leonard T. Connors offered the district $2.5 million for the site. The offer went nowhere.

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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