LBI Grade School Referendum Routed By Voters

Board Meets Thursday, Dec. 12 at 7 p.m.
By Gina G. Scala | Dec 10, 2019
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill FUTURE ON STANDBY: A majority of voters said no to a major renovation of the LBI Grade School in Ship Bottom.

Long Beach Island, NJ — A majority of voters in five Island communities defeated a controversial $7.68 million referendum to renovate and upgrade the LBI Grade School Tuesday night by a tally of almost 3-to-1, according to early results. The outcome of the special election is unofficial until certified next week by the county.

“The only good thing out of this outcome is that it allows us to plan for the future,” said Colette Southwick, a district parent who also serves on the school board. “Really, truly, appropriately plan for the future of the school district.”

With all seven districts reporting, the special election night results showed 1,237 votes against the improvement project for the LBI School and 476 votes in favor of fixing up the 1950s-era building, located at 20th Street and Central Avenue in Ship Bottom. A total of more than 6,000 registered voters in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City were eligible to cast ballots Dec. 10 for or against the improvement project.

“After the antics of a majority of the board, there was no public trust,” Kathy Ries, a Harvey Cedars resident, said of why the referendum was defeated.

Of Barnegat Light’s 632 registered voters, 143 turned out to vote in person with another 76 electing to turn in their votes through a mail-in ballot.

In Harvey Cedars, 77 registered voters cast ballots at the borough’s polling place; another 54 cast their ballots through mail-in votes.

Long Beach Township, which has four representatives on the LBI Consolidated Board of Education, had just 25 percent of its total registered voters cast ballots Tuesday. There are 2,913 voters in the township. Only 481 voted in one of three polling places; another 262 returned their vote by mail.

Of Ship Bottom’s 978 registered voters, 194 cast ballots in person at the municipal building with another 82 electing to turn in their votes through a mail-in ballot. A total of 28.2 percent of the registered voters participated in the special election.

More than 32 percent, or 1,072, of Surf City’s registered voters cast ballots Tuesday. Poll place workers saw 262 voters come into cast their ballots. Another 83 registered voters turned in their ballots through the mail.

The fate of the referendum might have been sealed last month by the very group that worked all year to move toward a resolution to the issue of upgrading the LBI School: a majority of LBI Consolidated Board of Education members. In November, board President William Fenimore announced he had received a written offer from Surf City Mayor Francis Hodgson to purchase the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School, which was deeded to the district in the 1960s for educational purposes.

Fenimore’s revelation came during the second public comment period of an otherwise routine board meeting Nov. 19 and served to inflame an already discontented public. The board agreed in October not to discuss the future of the E.J. School until after Tuesday’s referendum. That motion was rescinded, allowing the board to move ahead with discussing the offer and how to proceed with negotiations regarding the sale of the Surf City-based school. An ad hoc committee was formed to continue talks with Surf City officials about the possible sale.

Fenimore declined to say who was on the ad hoc committee when asked a few days after the Nov. 19 meeting, saying that would become public knowledge at the next school board meeting. The board is slated to meet Thursday, Dec. 12, in the media center of the LBI School. The meeting begins at 7 p.m.

In November, Board Attorney Tony Sciarrillo said Fenimore, as board president, could convene an ad hoc committee without the authorization of the board. However, any contract would need to be approved by the full board.

What’s Next. Even before the November board meeting, community members mounted a campaign across social media and across the Island to bring awareness to the shortcomings of the referendum, attending four town hall-style meetings and driving home the uncertain future of the E.J. School after the board agreed to discontinue discussion about the elementary school until the new year.

Then, in the aftermath of November’s school board meeting, community members ran their concerns about how the offer was handled up the chain of command to the county superintendent of schools, en masse.

At the time, Kevin W. Ahearn, the executive county superintendent of schools, said in a written response that a board cannot move forward without the full consent of the board, not just two members. He also said no major decisions or deals should be undertaken by a board during the period of November to January because of reorganization and a possible change of leadership/direction.

“Any approvals or acceptances done by a board during this period can be rescinded due to the present board being in a lame-duck status,” he said.

It’s likely the board’s focus will change next month with the swearing in of two new board members. Newcomer Brielle Hoffacker outran incumbent board Vice President Bonnie Picaro in last month’s school board election to be one of four Long Beach Township representatives to the board of education. In Harvey Cedars, write-in candidate Fred Schragger emerged as the certified winner for a seat vacated by James Donahower, who did not seek re-election. Schragger’s organized write-in campaign netted him 47 votes.

Whether the outcome of the referendum will be discussed at the board’s meeting on Dec. 12 is unknown. The meeting was rescheduled from Tuesday once a majority of the board voted to move forward with the Dec. 10 referendum.

— Gina G. Scala

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