LBI School Referendum Date Set as Motion to Consolidate Falls Short

By GINA G. SCALA | Sep 25, 2019
Photo by: Jack Reynolds Ethel Jacobsen Elementary School

Ship Bottom — Since the beginning of the year, freshman Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education member Eileen Bowker has been tasked with developing a strategic plan for the elementary school district. Coordinating schedules with the New Jersey School Board Association representative charged with helping develop and implement a plan to effectively target the district’s efforts and resources to move it forward hasn’t materialized.

What if it had? Would the district and the public remain divided over rehabbing the LBI Grade School to the tune of $7.68 million after years of what many proponents of the improvement project call neglect? Would the district and its teachers union be at a stalemate over a new contract? Would parents, many of them former students, be mobilizing to fight to keep the Ethel A. Jacobsen School as a viable educational facility for their children and future generations?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to any of those questions. Often, for every question that is answered there are a litany more waiting to be asked.

Opponents of plans to rehab the LBI Grade School and eventually merge the entire E.J. School staff and student body into the Ship Bottom location want a comparison of what it would look like to make needed renovations to both schools. The LBI School dates back to the 1950s, the E.J. School to the 1960s.

“We don’t know if we’re staying in two schools,” Colette Southwick, one of four women representing Long Beach Township, said earlier this month before a majority of the board voted in favor of moving forward with the December referendum. She voted against it. “Consolidation is not a certainty.”

Merging the two schools has been on the board’s radar for years and was part of the expansion and renovation plan for the E.J. School, which Southwick supported, that was turned down by voters in three Island towns two years ago. Had that referendum been approved, the LBI School was expected to be shuttered in June 2018 with students and staff relocated into the E.J. School.

“I don’t know what’s changed,” William Fenimore, board president, said of the plans, for which the district paid about $700,000. “Do you want to pay another architect? That’s where I am struggling. How do we not encumber our community?”

Solution 1. Anthony Sciarrillo, the district’s longtime attorney, recommended the board take a step back to learn more about what direction taxpayers want to see the district take.

“This is not legal advice,” he said recently, “but the recommendation of someone who has more than 37 years dealing with school boards and who has attended more than 3,000 board meetings.”

His suggestion included that the board schedule three or four public meetings, without agendas, to collect all the information.

“Otherwise, it’s a pendulum that’s just going to swing side to side,” Sciarrillo said. “It’s your decision.”

His recommendation went unheeded, despite the efforts of Southwick and board member Marilyn Wasilewski.

Solution 2. The fact that Long Beach Island is home to two elementary school districts is sometimes lost in the conversation. Beach Haven educates students from that borough in its multiple-story brick school located between Bay Avenue and North Beach Avenue. Earlier this year, Southwick suggested the LBI school board reach out to its counterparts in Beach Haven about “joining us.”

In February, Irene Hughes, Beach Haven school board president, said, “After careful consideration, it was determined that their proposal would not benefit the Beach Haven students or taxpayers.”

Georgene Hartman, a Long Beach Township representative, said the consolidated district has been reaching out to Beach Haven since the 1990s to no avail.

“The conversation in January, they definitively told us they weren’t interested,” she said.

Southwick, however, said at least some of the Beach Haven parents feel differently than some of the school board members there.

It’s unclear whether another conversation between the two districts will happen now that Beach Haven has a new superintendent in place.

Solution 3. Find a way to increase revenue coming into the district. Sounds simple, but so far, it’s been anything but. Fenimore said one of the reasons the district was moving toward consolidating into one building was because expenses outweigh revenue.

“If we don’t do anything,” he 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, according to Sciarrillo. 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, according to Chris Kelly, the district’s business administrator.

The background. 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 shot down. 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.

Just last month, the board failed to garner enough votes in favor of moving forward with $7.68 million in renovations to the LBI School. Surf City representative John McMenamin cast the deciding vote at the Aug. 28 special meeting. At the board’s Sept. 17 meeting, he revived the motion he initially voted against, explaining it didn’t go far enough.

McMenamin wanted to stipulate the board would “put the EJ School on ice,” relocate staff, students and all educational services into the LBI School, should voters approve the referendum and once repairs were complete. As one of five board members who voted against the referendum motion, he was able to bring it to life for reconsideration, but the resolution couldn’t be rewritten. He made a separate motion to mothball the E.J. School, which failed when Hartmann abstained.

A motion to table the referendum discussion until after the Nov. 5 school board election also failed. The referendum to renovate the LBI School is expected to be held from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 10, in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City.

The E.J. School. In the 1960s, Surf City officials deeded roughly 2.9 acres to the district for a school with the stipulation that once it was no longer used as an educational facility it would revert back to the borough. At the time, the agreement was for the borough to pay $35,000 plus 4 percent interest for every year the land was used as a school.

“There are a bunch of qualifications,” Sciarrillo said when the issue was brought to light at the Sept. 17 board meeting. “It doesn’t just revert back (to Surf City).”

The regulations that the consolidated school board is required to adhere to regarding the closing of a school facility is overseen by the state Board of Education, 13 governor-appointed members who serve for a six-year term. The state school board adopts the administrative code.

Under the state administrative code for educational facilities, in order to close a school, the district must prove to the state and the county superintendent that the proposed closing is consistent with the district’s approved long-range facilities plan, including demonstrating sufficient school capacity exists to house students for the five years following the closing, or that the benefits of a new construction outweigh those of rehabbing a school; the use of temporary facilities doesn’t increase because of a facilities shortage; and the relocation of students into other schools doesn’t unlawfully segregate, separate or isolate on the basis of race or national origin.

Public Input. At last month’s special meeting, however, opponents, including some former students, unequivocally told the board they were opposed to shuttering the E.J. School in favor of the LBI School. Last week, the public wasn’t given an opportunity to address the December referendum until after the vote because the resolution was not formally on the agenda.

Barnegat Township resident Sara Colavita, whose children attend the district’s elementary schools as part of the Choice program, attempted to ask a question during the first public comment portion, which is set aside for agenda items only, but was unsuccessful.

“To me, this is incredibly dishonest to everyone who would have been here had this been on the agenda. This was done to prevent us from having our say,” Colavita said before asking if she would have had the ability under the first public comment to query board members about whether they planned on bringing the referendum topic up for discussion.

The short answer, according to Sciarrillo: yes, as long as she didn’t poll board members on a particular issue. That’s not allowed, he said.

“It’s a verbal amendment to this agenda,” he explained of what would happen had she asked her question during the first public comment portion of the meeting and McMenamin responded in the affirmative.

Before leaving the podium, Colavita said she would always regret not asking the question during the first public comment portion because it would have allowed all of those in attendance to be heard.

“What I have witnessed here tonight is the opposite of transparent,” said Tom Beaty, a former school board member. “The five who voted for this should be ashamed.”

The next regularly scheduled meeting of the school board is slated for 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 15, in the media center at the LBI School, 20th Street and Central Avenue in Ship Bottom.

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

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