Criticism of School Comparison Mounts Ahead of December Referendum

Surf City and Ship Bottom — Two taxpayers groups and a community organization are critical of a report analyzing the LBI Consolidated School District’s educational facilities compiled by the Joint Taxpayers Association of LBI and released earlier this month. Late Tuesday afternoon, the Friends of the LBI Schools, an organization of parents and other community members, released an eight-page document refuting claims in the JCTA report. It can be found at thesandpaper.net.

The Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association was the first community group to publicly oppose the JCTA report, which was compiled over time by members of the organization. The HCTA is a member of the JCTA.

“It’s designed to distract and mislead,” Kathleen Ries, a Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association trustee, said last week, noting the document was biased in favor of a $7.68 million referendum to renovate the LBI Grade School that is on the calendar for Dec. 10.

Ries, along with Robert Danna, another HCTA trustee, says the basis of their claims all stems from the district’s response to a letter Danna and Barnegat Light Taxpayers Association president Barbara Truncellito wrote. The Harvey Cedars Response Comparison of Two Buildings, October 2019, can be found at thesandpaper.net.

“The BLTA Board of Trustees considers the analysis of the two school properties by the LBI Joint Council of Taxpayers’ Association to be reasonably complete, however, there are two deficits,” Barbara Truncellito, BLTA president, and Dr. Rich Brodman, BLTA vice president, wrote in a letter to the editor this week. “First, the lack of a current independent structural engineering review of the LBI School and second, the lack of updated cost estimates for repair and renovation of the Ethel Jacobsen School. The BLTA Board of Trustees strongly believes that taxpayers deserve a current independent structural engineering evaluation of the LBI School and updated cost estimates for the Ethel Jacobsen School before being asked to approve the $7.68 million bond issue for the repair and renovation of only one school property.”

Background. Roughly a decade ago, after the housing bubble burst but before Superstorm Sandy, at a time when the public still approved or rejected school budgets on a Tuesday in April, the elementary school district’s budget was shot down by voters. That resulted in a $400,000 budget cut and subsequent recommendation to consolidate the elementary schools to counteract the funding loss, as well as adapt to a declining school-age population. Every board since then has spent a considerable amount of time and money on plans for the eventual consolidation of all staff and students into one building.

First, it was an $18.4 million referendum centered on expanding and renovating the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School in Surf City with plans to shutter the aging LBI School. Voters in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City rejected that proposal in September 2017.

Three Tuesdays from now, voters will cast ballots in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City to determine the fate of a rehabbing plan for the LBI School. Until last month, closing the E.J. School and relocating students and staff into the Ship Bottom building was part of the discussion. Despite the board agreeing to table discussion of merging schools until after the Dec. 10 special election, there is a prevailing feeling in the community that is exactly what would happen if the referendum is approved.

From the beginning, renovating the LBI School has been presented as an alternate solution to the September 2017 referendum as the district concedes it would not have the funds to continue operating two schools within the next few years.

“This is apples to oranges,” James Donahower, former school board president, has said of comparing the failed referendum with what is being proposed at the LBI School. “We wanted a wow school (with what was proposed in 2017). That was a moon shot. This is a Band-Aid.”

LBI School Costs. The cost breakdown of upgrading the LBI School, as it currently stands, is: $3 million for structural repair to the 1950s-era building, $1.5 million for HVAC improvements, roughly $1.1 million for electrical and plumbing improvements (divided between $113,000 for safety and structural purposes and $976,000 for improvements), $800,000 for Americans with Disabilities Act improvements, $471,500 in professional fees (architect, engineer, etc.) and $450,000 in contingency costs.

Another $150,000 is needed each for the media center roof and interior renovations, according to the district’s response. Both projects are considered necessary, under the findings of the document. It also stipulates another $150,000 in classroom lighting, as an improvement. These same figures also appear in the JCTA report.

“These expenditures (media center, interior renovations and classroom lighting) were not included in the referendum estimate,” according to a footnote in the document, which also notes the interior renovations are necessary for consolidation. “The $’s do not include any aesthetic improvements to the inside or outside of the building.”

In the Friends of the LBI Schools report, it is noted that 37.5 percent, or $3 million, of the proposed plan to rehab the LBI School is for structural repairs to the existing building.

“Whereas only 7.3 percent is needed for structural repairs to the E.J. School,” according to the Friends of LBI Schools document.

Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School Costs. By comparison, the cost of necessary safety and structural work includes $165,000 for necessary structural repairs, $126,500 for ADA improvements, $8.8 million for a 22,000-square-foot addition, $726,000 for improvements to doors and windows, $1.8 million for HVAC improvements and $715,000 for interior renovations. The total cost does not include funds to address parking for school buses, according to a footnote in the document.

Debt Service. Both school projects are eligible for up to 40 percent of debt service aid, district officials said in the October 2019 response. For the LBI School renovation project, that translates to approximately $3.2 million, according to the district’s response. Board President William Fenimore said on Nov. 13 the figure is about $2.5 million to $3 million that is given in what is essentially a credit system with the state, not actual monies.

“However, the NJ DOE (state Department of Education) will only contribute $143 per square foot for New Construction. The estimate would be $1.4 million debt service and $3.1 million for new construction, totaling $4.5 million,” according to the HCTA document.

With a $4.5 million reduction in cost, the E.J. School plan would come in at $7.8 million with the same tax burden that would be incurred if the existing referendum is approved, but would result in “a more effective project that accomplishes consolidation, and operational cost savings,” according to the Friends of LBI Schools report.

Future Capital Expenditures. This is a question without an answer, which the Friends of the LBI Schools did not categorize as an error by the JCTA, but as a failure of the school district to “adequately provide the data prior to taking the current question to referendum.”

“The failure of this answer being available to voters prior to the referendum being voted upon makes the referendum grossly premature. This is at the crux of the ‘money-pit’ concern surrounding the proposed LBI School project.”

Property Ownership. The E.J. School, which opened in the late 1960s, is situated on nearly 6 acres of land divided between Ship Bottom and Surf City. The land in Ship Bottom is 2.5 acres with the remainder, roughly 2.9 acres, having been deeded for educational purposes by Surf City officials in the 1960s.

“Box #13, Column B is a misrepresentation of the facts. Just as the ‘LBI Board of Education’ is listed as the owner of the LBI School in Column A, so too should they be listed as the owner of the EJ property,” the Friends of the LBI Schools document refutes. “The JCTA document falsely represents two municipalities as present interested parties in property ownership despite the fact that just as the LBI Board of Education owns the LBI School (as listed in Column A), it also owns the E.J. School.”

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

Reposted from The Sandpaper