LBI School Rehab Project Stalled; Board Divided Despite Taking Small Steps to Move Ahead

The LBI Consolidated school board continues to take steps toward rehabbing the LBI Grade School, despite suffering a setback last week when it failed to garner enough votes to begin the process of involving the state Department of Education.

Prior to that vote, the board appointed Owen, Little & Associates Inc., of Beachwood, as its engineering firm. It also approved, by majority vote and on the recommendation of Superintendent Peter J. Kopack, an April 2019 demographic study updated prepared by Statistical Forecasting, LLC.

Both of those actions set the stage for the board to vote on a prepared resolution granting Frank Little, a principal of Owen, Little & Associates, the authority to submit the demographic study as well as 30 percent of a rehabbing plan to the education department. That would allow the department to update the district’s long-range facilities plan and it would open the door, should the board agree, to move ahead with a referendum at some point.

On April 15, Christine Kelly, the district’s business administrator, confirmed the project remained stalled and no paperwork had been filed with the state. Earlier this year, the board granted Kelly the authority to sign off on certain items on an emergency basis, such as paying bills in between board meetings. Kelly said she doesn’t have the authority for submitting paperwork on her own.

Whether the district meets a June deadline with the education department is unclear at this point. What is clear is the division the discussion surrounding rehabbing the Ship Bottom school is having on the school board.

Colette Southwick, a representative from Long Beach Township, was against retaining Little’s organization as the district’s engineer, saying most school districts have an architect of record, not an engineer of record. She also cited Little’s work as a long-time municipal engineer for most if not all of the LBI towns as a potential conflict.

“(He’s) doing things our own BA (business administrator) should be doing,” Southwick said before voting no.

She also voted no on the motion giving Little the authority to begin the process of involving the education department in plans to rehab the grade school. Little was hired by the district more than a year ago to update the April 2015 report on repairing the 1960s-era building. For consistency, he worked with the same team of professionals before delivering the report in August 2018 and making minor changes in September 2018.

It was that time frame Bonnie Picaro, board vice president, referred to when responding to Southwick’s displeasure at receiving the resolution just before the conclusion of executive session, which ran over by nearly 20 minutes.

“This is the end result,” Picaro began her comments, “of what it would take. It’s what we asked for in getting a review of what needed updating. We’ve talked about it, Frank’s been working on it, and we voted to fund it (the updated report). He came tonight to tell us it’s done.”

Eileen Bowker, who introduced the motion that would have granted Little permission to submit both the demographic study and 30 percent of the rehab plan to the education department, said the board needed to act that night (April 9) to keep on track to meet a June 13 deadline with the state.

Picaro, Bowker, Georgene Hartman and John McMenamin voted in favor of Bower’s motion. Southwick, along with board members James Donahower, Kristy Raber and Marilyn Wasilewski voted against. Board President William Fenimore abstained.

Board attorney Tony Sciarrillo said the motion can be brought to light at any time by any member of the board.

“We still don’t have a scope of work (to be done at the LBI School),” Southwick said. “We have to repair LBI (School). We don’t have to repair E.J.”

The Ethel A. Jacobsen School, in Surf City, was the focal point of a 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.

Kopack reiterated last week the E.J. School isn’t large enough to house the district’s student body and staff without the use of trailers.

“(New) trailers are a solution,” Wasilewski said, noting trailers being used by the Pinelands Regional School District as its high school undergoes a yearlong project are nice.

The district did use trailers at the E.J. School following Superstorm Sandy when the LBI School was shuttered for repairs.

Raber, however, who represents Surf City on the consolidated school board, doesn’t want to continue to sink money into the LBI School. She called the school a “money pit” and said if the district moves to consolidate all the students into the LBI Grade School, the board would give the E.J. School back to the borough of Surf City for “pennies.”

In 2014, then-Surf City Mayor Leonard T. Connors asked the school district to consider an offer to sell the Jacobsen school property to the borough. The $2.52 million offer went nowhere. There is a deed restriction on the land, saying if it’s ever not used as a school the property would revert back to the borough.

The school board has been at odds about what to do regarding the district’s two schools since the discussion surrounding consolidation began nearly a decade ago. By all accounts, the LBI School was to be abandoned and the students merged into the E.J. School following the success of the referendum. Voters in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City systematically rejected the proposal by a 2-to-1 tally, sending the divided board into somewhat of a tailspin about next steps.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Picaro said about spending money to fix the LBI School when the consolidation issue is still unresolved. “Your impression is that E.J. is the answer. We can’t make that determination at this point.”

Picaro said a decision about consolidation is at least two to three years away from being made, noting the LBI School might be the solution to that issue when the time comes to make a decision.

“We don’t know,” she said. “We can’t let it deteriorate any more.”

Should the school board move forward with rehabbing the LBI School, the district would be eligible for 40 percent state aid of the total cost, estimated to be between $5 and $6 million. State aid for new construction is configured differently, Little has said, and the cost per square footage isn’t comparable to real-world costs.

— Gina G. Scala

Reposted from The Sandpaper