Former Members Implore LBI Board to Make Decision About Future of School Consolidation

Ship Bottom — Two former Long Beach Island school board members last month chided the current board for failing to make a decision about whether it will continue to operate two schools or consolidate into one elementary school in the near future and failing to select which school it will continue to operate, effectively moving past a rejected $18.4 million referendum in 2017.

Tom Beatty and Rich McDonough addressed the seven sitting members of the LBI Consolidated School Board (two were absent) during the second public comment portion of the April 30 meeting, which saw the introduction of the proposed school budget. During the budget presentation, district officials noted plans to move $1.5 million out of capital reserve in the event a decision is made to move ahead with renovations and upgrades at the LBI Grade School. If the project doesn’t go through that money will be returned to the capital reserve account, Chris Kelly, district business administrator, said.

“Are you going to make a decision?” Beatty, a past Long Beach Township representative, asked after admonishing board members for not using their microphones so they could be clearly heard in back of the media center at the LBI Grade School.

McDonough, a former member from Ship Bottom, told the board he was going to push a little harder for an answer, citing an April 9 discussion about moving ahead with the rehabbing project at the LBI Grade School, or consolidating into the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School. That discussion included a reiteration from Superintendent Peter Kopack that students and staff could fit into the LBI Grade School. That’s not the case with the EJ School, where trailers would be a necessity for classroom space.

“We deserve a little bit of clarification,” McDonough said, adding an overheard conversation at the April 9 meeting between Kopack and the board attorney hinted at the idea the LBI Grade School would be shuttered this summer and everyone would be merged into the EJ School.

Kopack again confirmed the LBI School could, with some modifications, house all district students and staff without the use of trailers at the site.

McDonough said he is profoundly concerned there are still two board factions divided on how to proceed, especially with the idea of spending $1.5 million on a building that may or may not be closed in the near future.

“Are we going to be in this building in the fall?” McDonough asked, insisting the board make a decision soon.

Bonnie Picaro, board vice president who chaired the meeting in the absence of board President William Fenimore, agreed, in part, with McDonough.

“We need to make a decision and yes, the board is still split,” she acknowledged. “My guess is that it (a decision) has to come in June. We can’t continue to waste money.”

Picaro, who is one of four women representing Long Beach Township, said Frank Little, the professional engineer the district hired more than a year ago to update the April 2015 structural review of the LBI School and who was retained last month as the district’s engineer of record, is charged with providing a scope of work for the rehab project at the LBI School.

“He’s focused on this school,” she said, “because nothing has been done here.”

Whether the district opts to close the LBI School or not, some of the repairs at the 1960s-era building have to be done, Eileen Bowker, the freshmen representative from Long Beach Township who outpaced Beatty in November’s election, said.

“We’re getting some true data for the first time,” she said, adding once that information is available the board will look at making a reasonable decision. “We’re going to go to one building (at some point). It’s just a matter of which one.”

Consolidating into one school, regardless of the school location, could save the district upward for a half-million dollars, according to Bowker.

James Donahower, the sole representative from Harvey Cedars, countered Bowker’s comment, admonishing, “real numbers have been put here long before I got here.”

Donahower turned his attention to McDonough, saying he agreed with his April 9 comments that the board’s decision needs to be data-driven, not emotional. Still, he told McDonough, he understands that for most people it’s an emotional issue.

“It’s sad,” Collette Southwick, a Long Beach Township representative, said. “We haven’t been able to make a decision.”

Southwick, who agrees with McDonough and Donahower that a decision should be data-driven and not emotional, said she hopes the board makes the right choice for students and the community when they see the final numbers of what it will take to fix the schools.

At the April 9 meeting, Southwick said the LBI School has to be repaired to continue to be operational, but repairs aren’t necessary at the EJ School. Still, the budget presentation included funding for the front stairs and windows, fencing in the playground for safety, and fixing a problem in the media center at the school where there is too much moisture.

The EJ School was also the focal point of the failed September 2017 $18.4 million rehabilitation and expansion referendum. 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 E.J. 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.

McDonough urged the board to make a decision soon, saying September would arrive quickly and rallying the community would be vital to their success.

— Gina G. Scala

Reposted from The Sandpaper