Surf City — Surf City officials last week weighed in on two hot-button issues splitting public opinion in five Island communities ahead of a $7.68 million renovation referendum: the future of the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School and the LBI Consolidated District’s continued participation in the state’s Interdistrict Public Schools Choice program.
“I want to go on record that the E.J. School property will be for recreational use only and won’t be built on,” Mayor Francis Hodgson said during a presentation by district officials at last Wednesday’s standing-room-only borough council meeting. His comments addressed a big concern for community members wanting to dial back the school board’s decision to go to referendum next month.
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 remaining, roughly 2.9 acres having been deeded for educational purposes by Surf City officials in the 1960s.
“This conveyance is made subject to the provision that if it should be determined by the Board of Education that the above school property is not to be used for school purposes, the borough of Surf City have the option to repurchase the land for a sum equal to the sale price paid to the borough by the Board of Education, plus interest thereon at the rate of 4 percent annum from the date hereof,” the June 22, 1962 deed reads in part.
How much Surf City would conceivably pay for the school and the 2.9 acres of land is only one concern community members have if a future school board decides to shutter the school in favor of relocating the entire student body and staff to the LBI Grade School, located less than 4 miles away in Ship Bottom. In October, a majority of the board agreed to temporarily suspend a June decision to develop a plan that ultimately called for closing the E.J. School if the Dec. 10 referendum passes and once renovations were complete until after next month’s special election.
“We don’t want another fiasco. We already pay 80 percent to go off the Island,” Hodgson said, referring to the cost incurred by Long Beach Island taxpayers to educate students in grades seven through 12 at the Southern Regional School District. The cost to each constituent municipality to educate its students is based on property value, not actual per-pupil costs. Only Waretown, which sends students to Southern Regional as a sending district, pays an annual tuition per student.
Student Enrollment. To bolster the student population and save money, the idea of bringing middle school students back from the mainland has been broached by some. Superintendent Peter J. Kopack, however, said that ship has sailed.
“We cannot bring seventh- and eighth-grade students back,” he said Nov. 13, noting discussions on that topic have already happened with county and state officials.
For some, savings can be found in moving away from the district’s participation in the Choice program, a state initiative that enables parents to send their children to a school in an area in which they do not reside without any cost to the parents. A Choice district must submit an application and be accepted to participate. Boards must make an annual determination if they wish to continue with the program.
By her calculations, Councilwoman Jacqueline Siciliano said the district has lost approximately $820,000 by participating in the state-funded program. The district receives about $500,000 from the state for participating in the voluntary program.
“You’re back here asking for more money,” she said of the referendum to fix the LBI School. “Drop Choice.”
William Fenimore, board president, said the district could choose to phase out the program, but all of the currently enrolled students would be permitted to graduate before the program goes away.
“There are costs involved,” Fenimore said acknowledged. “It’s not straight math.”
The deadline for parents to submit applications for their children in the Choice program for 2020-21 is Dec. 3. The district can take up to seven new Choice students, according to its profile page, available on the state Department of Education’s webpage for Choice parents.
— Gina G. Scala