Ship Bottom — The Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education on Tuesday night agreed to enter into negotiations with the borough of Surf City for the sale of the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School, forming a committee to finalize the details and bring back a contract for board approval that could net the district $3 million for nearly three acres of land.
Board President William Fenimore halted the second public comment portion of the otherwise uneventful meeting, saying he had new business he hadn’t brought up prior to opening up to the public because of the flow of the business portion of the meeting. After a lengthy debate about reviving an Oct. 15 motion that explicitly stated the board would make no decisions about the E.J. School until after next month’s referendum, he announced he had received a written proposal that day from Surf City Mayor Francis Hodgson to purchase the E.J. School property.
Hodgson, according to Fenimore, reached out Monday 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.
Marilyn Wasilewski, the Barnegat Light representative returned to office by voters there earlier this month, called Fenimore’s announcement “totally inappropriate at this point.”
Colette Southwick, one of four Long Beach Township representatives on the board, said the item should have been on the agenda.
“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 presumed winner of the Harvey Cedars seat in this month’s election, who was sitting in the audience. Schragger ran unopposed as a write-in for Donahower’s seat on the consolidated school board. The election results won’t be confirmed until next Tuesday.
Eileen Bowker, the freshman representative to the board from Long Beach Township, said she had spoken with Hodgson Tuesday afternoon.
“He came up with the money,” she said in answer to a question about why the offer and why now, “because he knows it will help reduce the tax burden. It will help us get over the hump.”
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?” Southwick 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.”
Anthony Sciarrillo, the district’s longtime attorney, said before the board could dispose of the E.J. School, it must get permission from the state Department of Education. There are criteria for disposing of a school, he said.
“You’re just looking to screw us,” Wasilewski said. “This is no time for a vote.”
In the end, the board voted unanimously to enter negotiations with Surf City for the sale of the E.J. School, but not before Southwick confirmed that if a board member voted in the majority on the motion, they could bring it back up at a future date and rescind it.
— Gina G. Scala