Ship Bottom — Until the moment LBI Consolidated Board of Education President William Fenimore stopped the second public comment period to announce he received a $3 million written offer from Surf City officials to purchase the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School that afternoon, the Nov. 19 regularly scheduled meeting could only be described as mundane.
All of that was erased in a flash as board members, district professionals and the public struggled with feelings of being ambushed by the news, in the wake of an October decision to not discuss the future of the E.J. School until after next month’s $7.68 million referendum. That motion would later be rescinded by a majority of the board, lighting the way for the board to move forward with negotiations regarding the sale of the Surf City-based school. It also enflamed an already discontented public.
“The behavior I have witnessed is deplorable,” said Lindsay Meneses, who was the first member of the public to address the board after a lengthy discussion about the offer, including how it was made, when it was received, and what board members knew what and when. “I don’t think it (public comment) was closed properly. We don’t have the facts, advance notice. This is wrong. I beg of you to put the petty crap aside.”
For a brief moment, it appeared the board was going to resume the public comment period so parents and other community members would have the opportunity to be heard prior to any action being taken. To do so was at the discretion of the board, according to Anthony Sciarrillo, district attorney.
“You are observers at this point,” Fenimore said as the public formed a line at the podium, clamoring to be heard.
The Offer. The terms of the cash offer include signing a contract on or before Nov. 22, and no later than 14 days after, according to the paperwork that accompanied the Nov. 18 letter to board members from Surf City Mayor Francis Hodgson.
“An offer of $3 million would offset the cost of proposed renovations and lessen the tax burden to all of the taxpayers of the consolidated district. The property would remain, in perpetuity, for recreational/municipal use,” Hodgson wrote in part. “This would be a fair and equitable offer for all parties involved. Your acceptance of such an offer would assist in maintaining a high standard of education that our children deserve and that our community expects.”
While Fenimore, as board president, could move forward with forming an ad-hoc committee to negotiate the sale, a final contract must be approved by the board, Sciarrillo said.
“I am not going to speculate how long it will take,” he said, noting the 1962 deed that granted the school board the right to the land does not “contemplate a building on the property.”
When pressed on the matter, Sciarrillo said he hadn’t reviewed the deed in full since Superstorm Sandy.
“It seems everyone came prepared,” he said, noting it felt like “everyone is making me look stupid. There is something called professional pride.”
This is not the first time Sciarrillo has been at odds with the board over how things have been handled. In September, he said he was embarrassed by how the meeting played out. At that time, the board reconsidered a failed motion to move forward with the Dec. 10 referendum, against his advice having served for more than three decades as a school board attorney for a number of districts.
“I can go back and look at it,” he said of the deed, “but I have to be authorized (by the board). I got my hand slapped for answering questions (without permission from the board) post Sandy.”
How It Unfolded. Hodgson, according to Fenimore, reached out Monday, Nov. 18, about possibly buying back the E.J. School, which Surf City officials had deeded to the district in 1962 for educational purpose usage. In 2014, the late Leonard T. Connors Jr., then Surf City mayor, offered the district $2.5 million for the site, which is located between Central and Barnegat avenues. It was Hodgson’s mentioning of the 2014 offer at last week’s borough council meeting that opened up the conversation this time around, Fenimore said in front of a disbelieving crowd.
“I told him if he could get up to $3 million, we could have further discussion,” Fenimore said, noting the sale of the E.J. School could, in theory, save the district from having to go to referendum Dec. 10 to fund the $7.68 million renovation project for the LBI Grade School in Ship Bottom.
The $3 million sale is roughly half the cost of the LBI School upgrade plans, and the state Department of Education is expected to kick back 34 percent – it could be up to 40 percent – of the referendum cost in what amounts to credits, not actual monies. If the state did provide the district with debt service aid, the figure is roughly between $2.5 million and $3 million.
Five years ago, when the board entertained the initial offer from Surf City to buy back the land, it required the other four constituent towns to pass a resolution saying they weren’t going to fight it or sue for their share of value from the property.
“Why wouldn’t we protect ourselves this time?” Colette Southwick, one of four Long Beach Township representatives on the board, asked. “This is even more reason to stop the referendum. It’s one option. (You) rushed to get the referendum out. This is a great time to postpone it.”
Marilyn Wasilewski, the Barnegat Light representative returned to office by voters there earlier this month, called Fenimore’s announcement “totally inappropriate at this point.”
“I am astonished at getting ambushed (like this),” said James Donahower, the outgoing Harvey Cedars representative. “You’re doing this now because you know your majority is going out. Enjoy your majority while you have it.”
The two men exchanged words, and Donahower was nearly asked to leave the meeting, to which he replied, “I want to go. Fred, it’s all yours.”
He was referring to Fred Schragger, the certified winner of the Harvey Cedars seat in this month’s election, who was sitting in the audience. He took home 47 votes for his efforts as an organized write-in candidate, according to county election officials. Kathleen Ries, vice president of the Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association, garnered nine votes unbeknownst to her.
The Aftermath. In a statement issued Tuesday morning, Barbara Truncellito, president of the Barnegat Light Taxpayers Association, said, on behalf of its membership, “the BLTA is very disappointed by the lack of transparency from some of the members of the Board of Education. The discussion of the sale of the EJ school was not on the agenda for the Nov. 19 school board meeting. This topic was abruptly introduced by the Board of Education president. As the future of the EJ school is not part of the upcoming referendum, we feel that this was an inappropriate item to be introduced.”
The association also believes the actions undermine the intent of the upcoming referendum, as it pertains to the future of the E.J. School and hopes the new board that convenes in January will adhere to protocols.
“We are looking forward to the board moving beyond the current issues and getting back to the business of doing what’s right for our district’s children,” Ries said on behalf of the HCTA earlier this week. “HCTA believes that as trusted elected officials, the Board of Education has a fiscal obligation to the community it serves and it is incumbent upon each member to uphold the sworn duties of their public position at all times.”
School Closing. It’s too early to tell what will come of Surf City’s offer to purchase the E.J. School and how voters will respond to the Dec. 10 referendum. Still, the disposition and closing of a school requires input from county and state officials.
The regulations that the consolidated school board is required to adhere to regarding the closing of a school facility are overseen by the state Board of Education, 13 governor-appointed members who serve for a six-year term. The state school board adopts the administrative code.
Under the state administrative code for educational facilities, in order to close a school the district must prove to the state and the county superintendent that the proposed closing is consistent with the district’s approved long-range facilities plan, including demonstrating sufficient school capacity exists to house students for the five years following the closing, or that the benefits of a new construction outweigh those of rehabbing a school; the use of temporary facilities doesn’t increase because of a facilities shortage; and the relocation of students into other schools doesn’t unlawfully segregate, separate or isolate on the basis of race or national origin.
To dispose of a school, through sale, transfer or exchange of all or part of the total acreage, the district must submit a written request to the executive county superintendent, who would make a recommendation to the state. The district would be notified of any and all recommendations made by the county superintendent regarding its written request, according to the state administrative code for educational facilities. There is no time frame associated with the administrative code so it’s unclear how long such a process would take.