Barnegat Township Committee, School Board Members Spar Over Edwards School

Dec 13, 2017

The Barnegat Township Committee wrapped up the year adopting an ordinance bonding $14.2 million for a new municipal building and public works facility, but not until after Barnegat Board of Education members and township officials sparred over the future use of the Elizabeth Edwards School.

Once the site of the original Barnegat High School, the building has been closed since 2003. However, issues surrounding the building have resurfaced since not long after it was closed, the township floated the idea of possibly converting it into the municipal building, and selling the current site of the municipal complex on West Bay Avenue for commercial development.

At the Dec. 5 meeting, board President Scott Sarno said he had “great concerns” over what he said were comments made by the township committee and complained that the remarks were not addressed when officials attended last month’s board meeting.

Sarno said that at one time, the board was going to give the township the Edwards School free of charge, with the only concession being that the municipality would build a new bus garage for the school district at the cost of approximately $800,000.

“You said there was no sale of the Edwards School because we backed out of the deal,” said Sarno. “The reason that the Edwards School won’t become a municipal building is because of the mayor (Albert Bille) sitting there. He stood firm on his belief, and that is his right, but don’t attack us. Be truthful.”

Sarno said that renovating the Edwards School into a town hall would cost $7 million.

“Your town hall property is worth about $2 million to $3 million, so it would cost the taxpayers around $5 million to build a town hall at the school site, and now you’re bonding for around $15 million?,” he said. “You talked about us building a concession stand for $690,000. We have money to do extra things and we’ve had the lowest (school) tax increase in the county the last three years. So you say we have nice shiny schools and you complain of sitting in a mold-infested building. That’s on you, not us.”

Bille said that selling the existing municipal building site would be problematic due to the state Department of Environmental Protection Recreation and Open Space Inventory. The mayor said that because some of the land had been set aside for recreational purposes, the state might not allow the town to sell it.

“It is a process that would take three years before we would know,” said Bille.

He also said the $14.2 million bond figure is not set in stone, in that the town “is bonding for a line of equity.”

“It looks like it will probably cost between $10 million and $11 million,” said Bille.

Committeeman John Novak said the school district has had its own problems with buildings. He said that when the Joseph Donahue Elementary School was built in 2008, it was to house 591 students.

“It now has 266 students, which is 44 percent capacity,” he said. “I blame that on Dr. (former district superintendent Thomas) McMahon, when there was a lot of building and borrowing, even though nine out of 10 applications for residential development were age-restricted.”

Novak said he had favored moving town hall to Edwards, but said the building would be too expensive to rehabilitate. He said a possible alternative would be to raze the structure and erect a residential developmennt.

“We can designate that area for development, which would mean we could get concessions on density and height restrictions,” said the committeeman. “At a certain height, you can get a view of the ocean and the Barnegat Lighthouse.”

Novak also questioned if the proposed bus garage cost of $800,000 is accurate.

“You spent $690,000 for a snack bar which is 996 square feet,” he said. “That’s $692 per square foot. You’ll need about 10,000 square feet for the garage, and based on those numbers, it will cost $6 million to build that.”

Board member Maria Pereira blamed the under-capacity situation at Donahue for the “lack of tax ratables.”

“If we keep building age-restricted developments, we’re not going to get the children to fill our schools,” she said. “Families are moving to one or two towns south of here. We have to get more families with children.”

Committeewoman Susan McCabe said she had “heard from an individual that Scott (Sarno) was going to come after us.”

“This negativity doesn’t help anybody,” she said. “That kind of language, to come after us, is not appropriate, whether it’s us coming after you or you coming after us.”

Resident Jake Taylor said differences between the board and committee are clouding the issue.

“I think this should be tabled to give residents more say,” he said.

Resident Marianne Clemente said she favored moving the town hall to Edwards, but said the matter should be on hold.

“We should be doing this smartly and not so swiftly,” she said. 

McCabe said, “The last thing we’ve been doing is rushing this. We’ve been talking about this forever.”

— Eric Englund

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.