Surf City Withdraws Offer to Buy E.J. School

By Gina G. Scala | Dec 16, 2019
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Surf City, NJ — Just under 24 hours after a majority of voters in five Long Beach Island communities rejected a $7.68 million referendum to renovate the LBI Grade School in neighboring Ship Bottom, Surf City officials authorized its attorney to rescind a $3 million cash offer to purchase the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School.

“It’s over,” Mayor Francis Hodgson said immediately following the Dec. 11 Surf City Borough Council meeting, in which he opened the public forum prior to the governing body and its solicitor retreating to executive session. Roughly 20 minutes later, Hodgson reopened the meeting and announced the council would rescind its offer for the E.J. School. The motion to do so was unanimous. “We made the gesture. We wanted to see what would happen. We wish the board the best of luck.”

Registered voters in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City cast ballots for or against the multi-million improvement project for the LBI Grade School Dec. 10. When all was said and done, the special election night results tallied 1,237 votes against the project and 476 votes cast in favor of fixing up the 1950s-era building, located at 20th Street and Central Avenue.

In November, Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education President William Fenimore announced he had received a written offer from Hodgson to purchase the E.J. School, which was deeded to the district in the 1960s for educational purposes. The E.J. School opened in the late 1960s on nearly six acres of land divided between Surf City and Ship Bottom. The land in Surf City is roughly 2.9 acres with the remaining acreage, about 2.5 acres, residing in Ship Bottom.

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 the Dec. 10 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 That motion was rescinded, allowing the board to move ahead with discussing the offer and how to proceed with negotiations regarding the sale of the Surf City-based school.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.

On Dec. 12, the final school board meeting of the year and his last as school board president, Fenimore acknowledged both Surf City’s rescinding of its offer for the E.J. School and the failed referendum in a lengthy statement he read into the record.

“We have a problem,” Fenimore said prior to ticking off a list, including the district operating at a deficit, a declining enrollment and the cost per-student being in the top 18 in the state.

His second list included three solutions to address those issues, including tearing down an existing school and rebuilding from the ground floor up, for a total cost of between $25 and $30 million; expanding and renovating the E.J. School (that referendum failed in 2017); and renovating the LBI School.

“We know where that stands,” Fenimore said, noting individuals who opposed last week’s referendum offer no solution other than they don’t like the solution a majority of the school board agreed to earlier this year. “I spoke with the county superintendent (of schools). The offer (from Surf City) was still good, as was reported,” so the proposal and the discussion that followed “could ensue.”

In a Nov. 21 email sent to several individuals who inquired about the legality of the Nov. 19 school board meeting, Kevin W. Ahearn, the executive superintendent of schools for Ocean County, said, “There are two issues here that are significant: first, a board cannot move forward on any issue without the full vote/consent of the board, not two members.”

Ahearn also wrote that no major decisions nor deals should be undertaken by a board during the period of November to January because of reorganization and possible turnover.

“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 stated.

— Gina G. Scala

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