LBI District Clarifies School Referendum Details, Hears Concerns from Public

By GINA G. SCALA | Oct 23, 2019
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Long Beach Island — The $7.68 million referendum for which voters in five Island communities will be asked to cast ballots on Dec. 10 is only for renovations to the LBI Grade School, district officials repeatedly said during town hall meetings in Long Beach Township and Ship Bottom over a course of less than a week.

LBI Consolidated Board of Education President William Fenimore and District Superintendent Peter J. Kopack, also LBI School principal, began both town hall meetings with a short presentation on the details of the Dec. 10 referendum before opening the session for a more casual conversation about the district’s plans with residents and taxpayers.

Referendum. The cost breakdown of the referendum, as it currently stands, 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.

While the $7.68 million must be spent on rehabbing the LBI School should the referendum be approved, there is some room to maneuver the money into certain areas if the costs are more or less than currently budgeted.

The term of the debt service for the scope of the renovations project to the LBI School is 20 years, but could be shortened to just 10 years, Fenimore told those in attendance at the Oct. 17 town hall meeting in Long Beach Township. It was the first town hall meeting and counted three of the four township representatives to the school board as audience members. Board Vice President Bonnie Picaro left the meeting, on her own accord, when it was determined the board would have a quorum. Eileen Bowker, Georgene Hartmann and Colette Southwick all remained.

Since the referendum is focused on updating an existing structure, the district is eligible to receive up to 40 percent of the total cost from state aid. As of now, the district would receive roughly 34 percent of the $7.68 million.

If approved, taxpayers with a home assessed at $300,000 could 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.

Financial Concerns. Southwick, who had voted against moving forward with the school referendum, said what she took away from a recent meeting with district officials and Frank Little, the professional engineer the district retained as the engineer of record earlier this year, is that the total cost of rehabbing the school won’t be known until the project goes out to bid.

“If it’s under, great,” she said during the town hall meeting in the township last week. “If it’s over, we have to start prioritizing” what work gets done.

Should the scope of rehabbing the LBI School come in under the $7.68 million, the left-over funds could not then be reallocated to making necessary improvements to the Ethel A. Jacobsen School, in Surf City.

“Is the money not being allocated because you’re going to close the E.J. School?” Devon Fanelli, a Ship Bottom resident, asked Monday, homing in on concerns many audience members had regarding the status of the 1960s-era school. A majority of the board agreed Oct. 15 to temporarily suspend a June decision to develop a plan to relocate the entire student body and staff from the E.J. School, effectively ending all discussions about consolidation until after the December referendum (see related story).

The answer to Fanelli’s question, though, is not tied to any school closure discussion, but to the language of the bond proposal. In the proposal being presented to voters in December, the board asks for the authorization of various renovations, alterations, improvements and upgrades to the LBI School, relating to the work, fixtures, equipment and site work. It further asks for $7,680,516 for such improvements and to issue bonds in the principal amount of $7,680,516.

“The final eligible costs of the improvements approved by the Commissioner of Education are $7,680,516. The proposed improvements include $0 for school construction elements in addition to the facilities efficiency standards developed by the Commissioner of Education or not otherwise eligible for State support pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:7G-5(g),” according to the bond question written by bond counsel and posted on the district’s website under a referendum tab on its home page. “The State debt service aid percentage will equal 40% of the annual debt service due with respect to the final eligible costs of the project. The Board of Education is authorized to transfer funds among the projects approved at this election.”

Structural Concerns. Some of the concern is tied not just to the cost of fixing the pilings under the LBI School, which is the bulk of the structural repairs to the building, but to how many are in disrepair. That was evident Monday evening when Jeff Miller, a Ship Bottom resident and a builder with 45 years’ experience, questioned the 2018 report facilitated by Little, who used the same group of professionals responsible for the 2015 project to shore up the LBI School.

“Other builders and myself have serious concerns,” Miller began his comments at the Oct. 21 town hall meeting in Ship Bottom, “that this will be a money pit.”

Citing specific pages of the Aug. 2018 report, Miller noted Little was unable to determine the exact decay of pilings under the LBI School.

“What assurance can you give me that you’re not asking me to fund a money pit?” he asked, adding Little’s report recommended additional studies to ascertain what is going on under the Ship Bottom building. “I am not impressed with walking the perimeter. It’s not going to tell me anything.”

Nancy Henderson, also a Ship Bottom resident and a graduate of the LBI School, said the only reason the building is in its current state is “the ball was dropped in 2002 when the board only authorized a portion of the underneath to be done. We can’t go another 17 years (without doing anything). It must be done.”

What If. Earlier this month, members of a parent group opposed to the closing of the E.J. School drafted an amended proposal requesting that the school board postpone the $7.68 million referendum. That action, according to the counterproposal, would allow for additional language to be added to the referendum, effectively saying the district would operate both schools for the duration of the debt service.

‘It’s not legally advanceable,” Fenimore said during the Oct. 17 town hall meeting. “The bond counsel confirmed; it just came down today.”

Still, that idea of holding off on the referendum was somewhat of a common theme at the township and Ship Bottom town hall meetings, where familiar faces and similar questions queried the board’s decision to move ahead with the referendum without considering other plans.

“You may not be happy with the explanation,” Bowker, the Long Beach Township freshman representative to the school board, said Oct. 17 when the discussion about alternate plans was brought up. “The state doesn’t have the money, have said, ‘We don’t have the money for new construction.’ It’s difficult enough getting state funds.”

Bowker went on to say keeping both schools open is important to the community, and district officials are looking to prioritize ways to do that at a time when most New Jersey taxpayers are tired of carrying the burden of educational costs. The cost per pupil average across the state is about $18,000. It’s nearly $33,000 to educate a student in the LBI District, she said.

Additionally, the district has been using surplus monies to offset the cost of running both the LBI School and the E.J. School. So far, it’s worked, district officials said. At some point in the next few years, the surplus is going to be gone.

“If we don’t do anything,” Fenimore has said, “we will run out of money. In the near future, we may see Choice (the state’s Interdistrict Public Schools Choice program) go away, a reduction in the number of classes per grade and teachers.”

Fenimore has repeatedly referred to the 2 percent tax levy cap the state put into play to restrict the growth of local property taxes to fund schools. The cap restriction uses a growth rate with adjustments for some fixed costs, such as annual student enrollment and increased healthcare costs. The tax levy cap is one of the reasons the board has been unable to raise enough taxes to offset the cost of running both schools.

Still, there is a work-around that allows the board to strike a budget that exceeds the 2 percent tax levy cap. Registered voters would be asked to cast ballots in favor of or against the budget, he said. Should that budget fail, the mayors in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City would review it and make cuts.

Many Point of Views. Kevin Phillips, a Barnegat Light resident who attended the Oct. 17 town hall meeting, said he is not opposed to fixing the LBI School, but he doesn’t trust the referendum is only about updating the building.

“I am not going to vote yes,” he said. “It’s not about anger, it’s about mistrust.”

Phillips said one of the reasons he doesn’t trust what the board is saying is because it voted to shutter the E.J. School should the referendum pass and once renovations are complete.

“The motion felt (to me) if we don’t vote for it, we wouldn’t have the referendum,” Fenimore said, offering his personal philosophy for why he voted in favor of a motion to close the E.J. School last month. That motion failed when Hartmann abstained. “It was a means to an end. That’s how strongly I feel we need to repair the LBI School. That’s my personal opinion.”

Next Steps. The board has two more town hall meetings scheduled before the Dec. 10 referendum. Harvey Cedars is slated for 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 23, at the High Point Firehouse, 10 West 80th Street in the borough. Surf City officials will host the district at their next regular meeting, Wednesday, Nov. 13, at town hall, located on Long Beach Boulevard. The meeting time is 6:30 p.m., one hour earlier than a normal council meeting begins.

For some, though, the idea of next steps is about what happens after the referendum. Renovations on the LBI School could begin as soon as next June, if voters approve the $7.68 million expenditure. Decisions would need to be made about whether the students would remain in the LBI School during renovations or if some, maybe the third grade, is moved to the E.J. School, allowing for work to be done in one wing of the building without impacting the students.

If the referendum fails, the board could choose to go back out with the same proposal. If a district fails to garner voter approval for the project after two attempts, it can ask the state Department of Education commissioner to greenlight funding for the project, according to the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act. The act can be found on the DOE’s website under school facilities.

For that to happen, criteria must be met, including the first attempt at voter approval took place during the three previous years; the first referendum addressed the same project; and the scope of the project is consistent with the facilities efficiency standards, which is set by the state for elementary, middle and high schools. It determines to what extent the project qualifies for state aid and represents the instructional and administrative spaces that are educationally adequate to support the achievement of the Core Curriculum Content Standards.

“If the commissioner determines that the project is necessary for a thorough and efficient education, he will approve the project and authorize the issuance of bonds to cover the local share of the project,” according to the act. “The New Jersey Economic Development Authority must construct any project approved in this manner.”

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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