Parents Question Reasoning Behind LBI Board Decisions to Shutter EJ School

Special LBI BOE Meeting 7 p.m., Aug. 28
By Gina G. Scala | Aug 27, 2019

Surf City — When the new school year begins next week, Sara Colavita will once again spend a portion of her weekday morning on the road from her home in Barnegat Township to Long Beach Island, where her children are enrolled in the consolidated school district as part of the state’s Interdistrict Public Schools Choice program. The state program enables districts to accept students from kindergarten through high school who do not reside within school boundaries at no cost to their parents. Colavita said she chose the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District because of the staff, the small-town feeling and community involvement.

Losing any of those things is just one of the concerns worried taxpayers have with plans a majority of the school board is endorsing for a rehab of the Long Beach Island Grade School in Ship Bottom. Those plans would eventually result in the shuttering of the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School in Surf City. At a special meeting on Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. at the LBI School, the board is expected to unveil a $7.6 million bond proposal for renovations to the LBI School as well as a resolution to send those plans to the state Department of Education in preparation for a Dec. 10 referendum.

A full majority vote of the nine-member board is needed to approve the resolution. Plans to rehab the LBI School, which were presented to the board at its Aug. 20 executive session, are based on an updated April 2015 structural review of the building.

The board has cited a decline in enrollment, an aging infrastructure, and a renewed push by the state for the regionalization of all elementary districts into an existing high school district, or the creation of a new one, as reasons for renovations and consolidation into the 1950s-era school, located at 20th Street and Central Avenue.

That reasoning doesn’t hold water for Colavita and a contingent of taxpayers who continue to voice their concerns and opposition to the plan.

“Every year there is a wait list (for the Choice program). People are waiting until the last week to see if they make it (into the program),” Colavita said earlier this week. “Why would you want to eliminate that?”

Participation in the state program is optional for school districts and requires an application to the state Department of Education. The district has an opportunity each year to consider participation in Choice and to determine the number of open enrollment seats it will consider for the program. For the 2019-20 school year, the district currently has 39 Choice students registered, according to Christine Kelly, district business administrator. Until recently, all 40 seats were filled, but a set of twins moved out of district, she said. A letter of invitation was sent out to the next family on the list and the district is currently waiting to hear if it will accept.

In the meantime, Colavita said parents who choose to send their children to the LBI schools are committed to the district.

“What is to gain?” she asked. “Who is to say who can or can’t live here (in the district)? With technology, more people are working from home,” meaning families are electing to live in shore-area communities, like Long Beach Island, because they don’t necessarily have to commute to make a good living.

The school board has been at odds about what to do with the district’s two schools since consolidation began about a decade ago. In 2017, the board asked voters in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City to approve an expansion and renovation to the E.J. School. The referendum passed in Barnegat Light and Harvey Cedars, but was rejected by voters in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City, ultimately failing by a tally of 2-to-1.

“They have a fiduciary duty to maintain an asset,” Kevin Phillips, a Barnegat Light resident, said. “There is no bigger asset on Long Beach Island than land.”

His comments stem from a deed restriction on the E.J. School that stipulates once the site is no longer used as a school, the borough of Surf City is eligible to purchase it for $35,000 plus 4 percent interest per year since the district assumed ownership of the land. In 2014, then Surf City Mayor Leonard T. Connors Jr. offered the district $2.5 million for the land.

Phillips doesn’t believe any municipality has the right to an asset that rightfully belongs to the students and could be used to bring revenue into a district that, perception-wise, is one of the wealthiest in the state.

“Mothball the LBI School,” said Phillips, whose five children are among the district’s student population. “No one is talking about closing a school.”

A school that Phillips and other parents struggle to define beyond happy, fresh and breathable.

“There is a vibe. I can’t put my finger on it, but there is a vibe at the E.J. School,” he said.

Marci Bleam, a Ship Bottom resident, knows the kind of vibe Phillips is talking about, and she’s concerned that once the district moves the entire student body and staff into one building, that feeling will go away.

“There is no way being in one school can accommodate everything,” said Bleam, a former schoolteacher turned guidance counselor. “I know what happens with big schools.”

The cost savings from shuttering one school has been cited between $500,000 and $700,000 by board members in recent months. Colavita, however, said by her calculations that figure hovers been $350,000 and $450,000.

“It will take between 17 and 21 years for the savings to even be seen,” based on the cost of rehabbing the LBI School, she said. “I don’t see a financial gain.”

Board President William Fenimore has repeatedly said he was a proponent of keeping two schools open until this year, when it became clear it wasn’t fiscally responsible to continue to do so. He’s also said the district is trying to stay ahead of 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. The bill was introduced in the state Senate May 16 and almost immediately referred to the Senate Education Committee. 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.

“I really believe they (the board) don’t want our opinion,” said Judy Meehan, who was an educator for 35 years. “I’m upset over the timing of the (special) meeting being held. There’s a lot of people who can’t make it; business owners that don’t have a lot of help this time of year. The timing of it is suspicious.”

Board member Colette Southwick, who was successful Aug. 20 in withdrawing the resolution to notify the DOE of a December referendum, lost her bid to move the discussion until the board’s next regularly scheduled meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 17.

The deadline to notify the state education department is the end of September. The board must also submit a supplemental debt statement to the five Island communities whose children are educated by the elementary school district. A certified copy of the bond proposal must also be sent to the Ocean County clerk’s office to request the county clerk to submit the proposal to the voters at the special school district election and to seek the assistance of county officials and municipal clerks in conducting that election, according to the resolution the board withdrew from its agenda Aug. 20.

— Gina G. Scala

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