Board Majority Greenlights December Referendum to Rehab LBI School

Action Is Against Recommendation of Attorney

Ship Bottom — Nearly three weeks after failing to garner enough votes, a majority of the Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education last night approved a motion for a $7.68 million referendum for renovations to the LBI Grade School.

A separate motion to mothball the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School, should voters approve the referendum and once renovations are complete, relocating its entire staff and student body as well as educational services into the LBI School, failed.

The referendum to rehab the Ship Bottom building is expected to be held from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10. A motion to table the referendum discussion until after the November school board election failed. This board’s decisions are only viable through Dec. 31, Anthony Sciarrillo, the district’s longtime attorney, said.

“I am kind of embarrassed by what has gone on here tonight,” Sciarrillo said after recommending the board take a step back to learn more about what direction taxpayers want to see the district take. “This is not legal advice, 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.”

He recommended that the board schedule three or four public meetings, without agendas, to gain a better understanding of what the public would like to see from the district going forward.

Sciarrillo’s recommendation went nowhere after John McMenamin, the Surf City representative who was the deciding vote against the referendum in August, revived the defeated motion to ask voters to support rehabbing the LBI Grade School. One of the five board members who had voted against going to referendum Aug. 28 had to bring the resolution back to life for it to be reconsidered last night, according to Sciarrillo.

McMenamin’s resurrection of the referendum question came after board President William Fenimore began his monthly report, an agenda fixture only in its second month, informing members of the public who couldn’t attend the Aug. 28 special meeting that a motion for a December referendum failed.

“We will not be moving forward” with plans for a special election, he said, adding the district would continue to operate as is but that one of the reasons the district was moving toward consolidation into one building was because expenses outweigh revenue.

“If we don’t do anything,” Fenimore said, “we will run out of money. In the near future, we may see Choice go away, a reduction in the number of classes per grade and teachers.”

The discussion surrounding shuttering one of the district’s two schools goes back a decade to a different board, a pre-Superstorm Sandy LBI, and a report that recommended consolidation as a solution to a $400,000 budget cut. 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.

In the 2017 rendition, the board asked voters to approve a $18.4 million rehabilitation and expansion referendum for the EJ School. Of that amount, $3.6 million focused on essential renovations to the elementary school, including updating the heating, ventilation and cooling systems; replacing aging ceilings and electrical panels; and upgrading lighting for energy efficiency. More than $14.5 million was needed for expanding the EJ School with the construction of eight new classrooms for science, technology, engineering and a math lab as well as an art room, gym and a student services office.

It took nearly 18 months before a majority of the current board, which has two new members since the failed 2017 referendum, voted to move forward with a new plan. Fixing the LBI School is the focus of the latest plan with the eventual consolidation roughly two years away from fruition.

At last month’s special meeting, however, opponents, including some former students, unequivocally told the board they were opposed to shuttering the EJ School in favor of the LBI School. Last night, 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 state’s Interdistrict Public Schools 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,” Tom Beaty, a former school board member, said. “The five who voted for this should be ashamed.”

— Gina G. Scala

Reposted from The Sandpaper