County Approves Shared Superintendent Plan for Pinelands District

New Budget to Pinch Tuckerton Homeowners Most
By RICK MELLERUP | May 02, 2018

Monday evening’s work session meeting of the Pinelands Regional Board of Education was one of the shortest in its busy past year, with the public session lasting only about two hours. That was, in the main, because only four members of the public showed up, perhaps because the meeting was held on the last day of the month instead of, as usual, the first Monday of a month. Whatever the reason for the low turnout, it certainly kept public comment to a minimum.

Yet folks who didn’t attend certainly missed out on many developments. The jumping of a major hurdle to hiring a permanent superintendent of schools was announced, the 2018-19 budget hearing was held, a “project labor agreement” that will result in hiring only union workers as the high school building is refurbished in a $40 million project was unanimously approved by the board, and the renewed possibility of an outdoor 2018 graduation ceremony was discussed.

Board of Education President Susan M. Ernst announced that Burlington County Interim Executive County Superintendent Daryl Minus-Vincent has approved a shared-services agreement that will allow Pinelands to hire a superintendent who will concurrently serve as the superintendent of another district. Although the name of the district and the superintendent has not been officially announced due to privacy concerns during the superintendent search, The SandPaper has learned the district in question may be the Little Egg Harbor School District and the superintendent in question may be that district’s superintendent, Melissa McCooley.

Minus-Vincent had to consider the shared-services agreement because Ocean County Interim Executive County Superintendent Judith Destefano-Anen had to recuse herself since she is a resident of Little Egg Harbor Township. The New Jersey Department of Education must still approve the shared-services agreement before Pinelands could hire McCooley.

Pinelands has been without a permanent superintendent since Robert L. Blake resigned under pressure from the board with a year remaining on a three-year contract effective June 30, 2016, and was replaced by Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks. The Pinelands Regional Board of Education did not launch a new superintendent search during her first year as interim because, as Ernst explained, the board didn’t want to bring in a newcomer while the $53 million worth of facilities rehabilitation projects approved by voters in January 2017 was being launched. But one of the first projects tackled – the replacement of the Pinelands High School building’s roof – turned into a debacle and Banks unexpectedly resigned in December 2017. She was replaced by Acting Interim Superintendent Cheryl Stevenson, who has stated she wants to return to her normal position as the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, despite winning praise from the board and much of the community while standing in for Banks. In the meantime, a seven-month superintendent search was launched with the assistance of the New Jersey School Boards Association. Twenty-six applicants were winnowed down to two for a third round of interviews at the end of February, when a decision was made.

If the state approves the shared-services agreement between the two districts, McCooley is expected to begin her new job on or about July 1.

Budget Has Slight Change

On Most Taxpayers

The 2018-19 district budget calls for general fund expenditures of $32,460,291, up $669,495 from last year’s $31,790,796. Almost all of that increase is due to salary increases for administrators, teachers, secretaries, custodians, paraprofessionals, substitutes and other district employees, which are up 2.73 percent from last year; and for employee benefits, up 7.64 percent from last year, for a combined increase of $980,952. But offsetting cuts in transportation, curriculum, textbooks, supplies and educational media; special education supplies, textbooks and equipment; legal fees; building maintenance (remember, the high school will be closed for the entire school year); and administration helped mitigate the increases in salaries and benefits.

Those cuts also allowed for a minimal impact on the local tax levy, which will increase by only $193,771, to $19,466,805 from last year’s $19,273,034. As always in regional districts, the tax levy will affect taxpayers in the district’s constituent communities differently due to the state’s complicated formula.

The owner of a home in Bass River assessed at $250,000 will actually the Pinelands Regional general fund taxes drop by $1.58 a month this year. An owner of a similarly valued home in Eagleswood will pay $1.17 more a month, while Little Egg Harbor residents who own homes asssessed at $250,000 will chip in $2.63 more a month.

Tuckerton residents will see the largest increase; a $250,000 home will cost $18.12 more per month for Pinelands taxes. Pinelands Business Administrator Stephen Brennan said Tuckerton was getting hurt because its ratables had not increased as quickly as those in the other constituent municipalities.

The board and administration officials said they had worked hard to keep general fund tax increases to a minimum because the annual bill for the 2017 referendum begins this year. In that regard, taxpayers must remember that their tax bills for the Pinelands debt service will take a big leap this year.

During the referendum campaign it was estimated that the owner of an average home in Bass River Township ($221,017 at the time) would pay an additional $119 a year because of the referendum. A typical Eagleswood homeowner will be paying the same tax increase for 25 years. The average Little Egg Harbor (assessed then at $196,100) will be taxed $97 more per year. Finally, Tuckerton homeowners with a home worth $200,000 will pay $82 a year in referendum-related taxes.

According to a chart provided by Pinelands Regional, a home valued at $196,000 in Tuckerton would be taxed at the rate of $14.20 a month extra this year to help pay for general fund expenses. That’s $174 for the year. Toss in the $82 for the referendum and you’re talking about paying at least $256 more in overall Pinelands taxes this year.

Look for

The Union Label

The aforementioned project labor agreement was so filled with legalese that even some board members had a difficult time figuring out what it actually said.

Board member Thomas Williams Jr., who represents Bass River Township and serves as chairman of the board’s Building and Grounds Committee, said it requires union contractors and union employees. They have pride in their job performance, Williams said, and “with all the problems we’ve had (with the high school roofing project), we don’t need picketers here as well.”

But wouldn’t using union workers drive up the cost of projects?

Brennan said there was no down side to the PLA because “even with non-union workers you’d still have to pay (under state law) prevailing wages.”

Now something that will make the Pinelands senior class smile: It had previously been announced that the 2018 graduation, currently scheduled for Friday, June 22, would probably have to be held indoors because of anticipated work on the district’s football field and track. But on Monday, Stevenson said it was looking as if that could be avoided.

The district had contacted Ocean County and found out it has a stage that could be rented at a reasonable price. It had also become apparent that the district’s bleachers could be moved. If the district rented 600 chairs at the cost of $2 a chair, an outside graduation ceremony could be held on another of the district’s playing fields. That option would be much cheaper than moving the event to an outside venue, such as Stockton University, and would make the graduating students happy because, as Stevenson said, they really want an outside ceremony.

“It’s looking like this could work,” she said of the new outside plan.

Now, if only the weather cooperates. Inclement weather has forced the last two Pinelands graduations inside.

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