School Merger Proposal Continues to Divide LBI BOE, Public

Board Vote Falls Short

What would become of Ethel Jacobsen Elementary School (seen here) if LBI students were consolidated into a rehabbed Long Beach Island Grade School remains unknown. Photo by Jack Reynolds.

Ship Bottom — The dust has yet to fully settle from the LBI Consolidated Board of Education’s failure to secure enough votes for a $7.6 million referendum to rehab the LBI Grade School and eventually merge the entire staff and student body into the Ship Bottom building. The much-needed rehabbing of the aging infrastructure has ignited a fire among parents, many former students, who attended a special meeting last week where district officials revealed some, but not all, aspects of the project for the first time.

Project Timeline. Although the board voted 5-4 Aug. 28 against a December referendum asking voters in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City to approve the expenditure for updating the LBI School, there is still time for another vote prior to the early October timeframe when it would need to be submitted to the state and county.

Following those deadlines, a special election could be held Dec. 10 in the five Island communities, according to the Aug. 28 presentation by Superintendent Peter J. Kopack and Business Administrator Chris Kelly. The renovations would include making ADA improvements, adding bathrooms back into classrooms in what is slated to become the early childhood wing, renovating existing bathrooms, putting air conditioning throughout the building, and repairing pilings.

Kelly said the plans need to be approved by the state Department of Education and there would be a visit by both the appropriate state and county education authorities. The bond question must be set 18 days prior to a special election, district officials said.

If the $7.6 million referendum is greenlighted by the board and approved by voters, the board must make the decision of whether students can be safely housed in the grade school during renovations and, if so, what the protocol would be to accomplish that.

Building Layout Changes. Under the proposed renovation plans for the LBI School, the current third and fourth grade wing of the LBI School would be converted to the early childhood wing; the superintendent’s office would be relocated to the business office, and there would be two offices in the media center. The media center would also host the fifth and sixth grade homerooms for attendance only. Students in the fifth and sixth grade area are already changing classes, Kopack said. The art and music rooms would remain intact and there would be the ability to hold two gym classes during one period, he said. One teacher would teach health in a classroom and the other would have use of the gym, Kopack said during his presentation.

“Some modifications are needed inside the building,” Kelly said. “We hope to do those next summer.”

Those modifications, according to Kelly, are not included in the referendum cost.

Frank Little, the professional engineer retained by the board to update an April 2015 structural review of the LBI School, said there is nothing in the proposed plan that would require the district to appear before the Ship Bottom Land Use Board seeking a variance. And likewise, he said the scope of the project would not require raising the building, either in part or in totality.

The Financials. One of the biggest selling points of rehabbing the 1950s-era school for many is the nearly 40 percent in state aid the district would receive to counter the cost. As of now, the district would receive roughly 34 percent in aid from the state for the project. The $7.6 million in bonds is over a 20-year period, and cannot be paid back in full for almost a decade, according to Tony Solimine, bond counsel for the district.

Taxpayers with a home assessed at $300,000 can expect to see a school tax increase of $8, according to the presentation. It’s a $17 spike in school taxes for a home assessed at $600,000 and $28 for a $1 million assessed value home.

Consolidating into one school is expected to save the district $450,000, according to the Aug. 28 presentation. The bond payment per year averages out to be around $367,000, Solimine said. The $83,000 difference is not the district’s savings, Kelly said.

“It’s two different baskets,” she said when the question arose during public comment, noting money from the district’s general fund and the referendum money cannot be merged. “The $450,000 allows us to grow. We need to find savings to continue to operate.”

The proposed savings are earmarked for curriculum and staff, at some point down the line, Kopack said, noting the current cost-per-pupil figure to educate students in the consolidated school district is a little over $33,000. That’s the 12th highest cost per-pupil in the state, the superintendent said.

“Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions,” board President William Fenimore said. “Can we keep two schools going and continue to offer the same services for the students? All that goes into the discussion.”

Fenimore, who until this year was in favor of maintaining two schools, said if the district continues as it is currently going, district officials will have to reduce student services at some point.

“We don’t want to have to do that,” he said, noting that moving toward a one-school district is nothing new. It was decided more than a decade ago after $400,000 was cut from a failed budget, he said.

A suggestion from a district parent to raise taxes to maintain the structure the district has in place isn’t viable because of the 2 percent budget cap the state put into play, Fenimore said.

The September 2017 Referendum. 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 EJ 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.

“This is apples to oranges,” James Donahower, former school board president, 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.”

Still, Fenimore has repeatedly said the board focused on the LBI School because a majority of voters in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City rejected that proposal by a 2-to-1 tally. The referendum passed in Barnegat Light and Harvey Cedars. He said the board wasn’t focused on what would become of the EJ School during this phase of the project because they wanted to give voters the ability to decide yes or no on the project.

Public Opinion. The board sat through nearly three hours of public comment mostly against the project. They heard from former students who returned to the Island so their children could have a similar educational experience, and from a cross-section of individuals wanting to know what was going to happen to the EJ School once shuttered. Surf City representative John McMenamin agreed with them.

The EJ School was deeded to the district in the 1960s with the stipulation that once it was no longer used as an educational facility it would revert back to the borough of Surf City. At the time, the agreement was for the borough to pay $35,000 plus 4 percent interest for every year the land was used as a school.

Currently, the board doesn’t know what will happen to the elementary school once all students and staff are merged into the LBI School. Fenimore said the matter would likely end up in court because the district would want fair market value for the site, which is located between Central and Barnegat avenues in Surf City. It’s flanked by open space on the southwest and the Island branch of the Ocean County library system to the east.

The EJ School is located on nearly 6 acres of land divided between Surf City and Ship Bottom. Roughly 2.9 acres of land is situated in Surf City and the remaining 2.5 acres in Ship Bottom. The dividing line runs through the parking lot, Fenimore said.

Opponents of closing the EJ School are concerned about impacts to students, staff and the community should the 1960s-era school be shuttered in favor of the LBI School. Among those concerns are losing that small-town vibe the EJ School is well known for giving off to students, parents and community members; losing open space on a barrier island that has seen a drastic change in esthetics since Superstorm Sandy; and being limited in providing continuity of education on the Island should another Sandy or other event make the LBI School unusable. They’re concerned the board is being shortsighted in selecting the LBI School, which is located on a smaller parcel of land and doesn’t have open space or room to grow like the EJ School does.

Others called the board’s use of a statewide push to consolidate elementary school districts into regional high school districts as a reason for merging the two elementary schools disingenuous. The state’s consolidation push is about reducing the number of districts, saving taxpayers money. Plans to move students and staff into the LBI School won’t, opponents of the project claim, appease state officials.

“It would help calm nerves if we knew what was going to happen (with the EJ School),” Bill Wright, a Brant Beach resident who addressed the school board during public comment, said.

Wright, one of several former district students to address the board, said he’s heard from several friends who have plans to return to the Island to raise their children and send them to school here.

Benefits of a One-School District. First and foremost, the district is at least two years away from physically moving staff and students into the LBI School, according to Kopack. That said, the district has seen a steady decrease in enrollment for the better part of a decade and the expectation is that it will continue to see a decrease or remain flat for the foreseeable future, he said during his presentation.

Among the benefits of having a single-site district is the ability to offer a wider range of curriculum during and after school; the continuity of relationships among staff, parents and students; and more opportunities for teachers to interact with colleagues, the superintendent said. For the students, the benefit is not being shuttled between two schools for assemblies and programs, and a shorter bus drive to and from school, Kopack said.

Reposted from The Sandpaper