Board Members’ Activity on Possible School Sale Called Into Question

Photo by Jack Reynolds.

Ship Bottom — The top county school official said the actions of two Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education members who negotiated with Surf City officials on a purchase price for the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School without the knowledge of the full board were improper.

“First, a board cannot move forward on any issue without the full vote/consent of the board, not two members,” Kevin W. Ahearn, the executive county superintendent of schools, said in a written response to questions about last week’s revelation that board President William Fenimore was in contact with Surf City officials regarding the potential sale of the E.J. School without ever being authorized to negotiate on behalf of the board.

Fenimore delivered the news himself at the regularly scheduled board meeting Nov. 19, saying Surf City Mayor Francis Hodgson reached out to him regarding a 2014 offer Surf City officials made for the property, which sits on 2.9 acres of land between Central and Barnegat avenues in the borough. Another 2.5 acres of the elementary school site is located in adjacent Ship Bottom.

“I told him if he could get up to $3 million, we could have further discussion,” Fenimore told the board and public at last week’s regularly scheduled meeting.

At that same meeting, Eileen Bowker, the first-year Long Beach Township representative, said she met with Hodgson on the afternoon of Nov. 19 to discuss the 2014 offer. Her acknowledgement prompted Kristy Raber, one of two Surf City representatives on the board, to ask Bowker why she was “meeting with my mayor.”

Bowker was not present at the Nov. 13 Surf City Borough Council meeting where Hodgson mentioned the 2014 offer of $2.5 million for the site, which Fenimore said was the catalyst for the mayor reaching out on Monday, Nov. 18. A written offer of $3 million wasn’t received until roughly 3:30 to 3:45 p.m., Nov. 19, according to Fenimore.

“I had the document and could have (introduced it) in executive session,” Fenimore said recently, “but then there would be questions about whether we would be able to discuss it in public. I believe the discussion should happen in public.”

Historically, executive session discussions are not made public until after they have been resolved. There are specific items that can be discussed in executive session, including matters including personnel, pending or anticipated contractual matters, matters covered by attorney/client privilege, pending lawsuits and negotiations of term. If the board had been made aware of the offer in closed session, they could have decided to add an addendum to the agenda, which would have made the offer public and thus available for discussion in the open meeting.

“It’s inconsistent with best practices of local government. It’s not transparent, but is it illegal? No,” Walter Lures, attorney for the New Jersey Foundation of Open Government, said last week, noting the Open Public Meetings Act is lacking in certain areas.

Lures said if he was advising the board, he would recommend a Realtor handle every aspect of an offer, including negotiating a purchase price, and report back to the board. He said it’s important the board keeps its distance from any impropriety.

“The type of backroom deal that seems to have been orchestrated by the board president to sell one of our schools is unethical and a blatant abuse of power. If this was in the best interest of the children and the community, why wouldn’t he have informed the attorney, superintendent, board administrator and balance of board members?” Colette Southwick, a board member speaking as a district parent and not as a member of the board, said recently.

“It appeared to be less of a surprise to five of the members. I am embarrassed. I wouldn’t normally speak out like this against leadership, but I have to inform the public that some of us are thinking about the children and community. We are fighting for you,” Southwick continued.

For his part, Fenimore said he is not concerned by the reaction to Surf City’s offer to purchase the E.J. School.

“It’s the same group of people who have been vocal. It’s disappointing that this group is trying to intimidate. That shouldn’t be,” he said. “They haven’t brought forth a solution other than ‘we don’t like their solution.’ You speak as a board in public. You (board members) don’t have a First Amendment right.”

Ahearn, however, said 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.

Meanwhile, Southwick said a plan that has the full support of the board and the public is needed to move forward.

“We have a lot of information we should be sharing. We need all the board members working in the best interest of the district,” she said. “I think it’s great that community members are questioning the majority board members and demanding answers.”

Reposted from The Sandpaper