School Consolidation, Rehabbing and Referendum Preparation OK’d by Majority of LBI Board

By GINA G. SCALA | Jun 19, 2019
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill LBI Grade School in Ship Bottom.

Ship Bottom — In a 5-3-1 vote, the Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education approved multiple motions June 18 that could pave the way for a $7.2 million December referendum for rehabbing the LBI Grade School. No other information about the scope of the project was discussed during the short time it took the board to debate the motions.

Board President William Fenimore, who along with Vice President Bonnie Picaro, Georgene Hartmann, Eileen Bowker, John McMenamin voted yes to four separate motions, said, when asked, the $7.2 million price tag is a worst-case scenario figure.

“Why not look at the numbers” before voting, board member Colette Southwick, who along with Kristy Raber and Marilyn Wasilewski voted no. “(We) should have the total numbers before placing a vote.”

Board member James Donahower, whose seat representing Harvey Cedars is up this year, abstained from voting on all matters pertaining to school consolidation and the facilities plan, which could lead to the December referendum. He also abstained from voting on the hiring of bond counsel.

The vote on the four agenda items – school consolidation; facility project, state Department of Education submission; referendum preparation; and hiring of bond counsel came after one member of the public addressed the board during the first public comment portion of the meeting. That comment period is set aside for agenda items only.

Shari Roth, whose son graduated earlier in the week as a Choice (out of district) student at LBI Consolidated, told the board prior to the vote she hopes they do what’s best for the children when considering the school merger. She doesn’t want the district to lose what makes it so special.

Roth’s comments set the tone for nearly every member of the public who addressed the board during the second public comment portion, which lasted for about an hour. More than 100 people attended the meeting.

“I have three kids in the EJ School,” Colleen Conway, a Holgate resident, said, opening her remarks to the board. “I don’t get involved much because I am busy with them. But I hope the decision (you make) is an educated decision and not a rushed decision.”

Lee Major, who lives in the High Bar Harbor section of Long Beach Township, said he understands the concept of merging the district’s two schools, but he believes the board is going about it the wrong way.

“Think it through,” Major, who grew up on the Island, said. “As far as which school, LBI flooded (during Sandy); there is more room at the EJ School (to grow). I don’t think the kids deserve any less than a state-of-the-art school.”

The school board has been at odds about what to do regarding the district’s two schools since the discussion surrounding consolidation began nearly a decade ago. The LBI School was to be shuttered in favor of the EJ School and sold following an $18.4 million referendum in the fall of 2017, which did not pass. Voters in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City rejected the proposal by a 2-to-1 tally.

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 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.

“It’s impossible to consolidate and not lose something,” Marcie Sullivan, a Ship Bottom resident who is also a guidance counselor at the Southern Regional Middle School, said during her exchange with Fenimore.

Sullivan called the environment at the EJ School “amazing,” and told the story of how it took her daughter four months to say hello to Frank Birney, the principal there.

When she finally did, “Mr. Birney called my husband to tell him,” she said. “What we have at the EJ School is why we live here and why I want to keep it.”

— Gina G. Scala

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