LBI Board of Education Reassessing School Consolidation

Oct 25, 2017

After a lengthy debate, the Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education agreed to alter its prior number one goal for the current school: to plan for the transition of LBI Grade School students and staff to the Ethel A. Jacobsen School next September. Instead, the board will focus on reviewing and reassessing its goal for consolidation. The discussion came three weeks after voters in five Island communities shot down the $18.4 million referendum to expand and renovate the E.J. School.

The first step is for the board to meet with the mayors of Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City as soon as possible to find common ground, board President James Donahower said. Officials in the township, Ship Bottom and Surf City opposed the referendum to the point of passing resolutions against it. Ship Bottom and Surf City officials even wrote letters to the state Department of Education detailing their concerns about the board’s plans.

“We need to have a discussion, to see where we went wrong,” Donahower said during the Oct. 17 school board meeting. “We can go out and do it again, but I think we need to dial it back, take a breath and ask why it failed.”

Donahower, who said he believed in the plan put before voters Sept. 26, said it isn’t fiscally responsible to continue down a path that voters clearly are against. Out of 6,157 registered voters in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom, and Surf City, only 1,717 went to polls for the special election. Of that number, 1,127 voted against question one while 579 voted in favor. Question two was shot down by a vote of 1,100 against and just 550 in favor, according to the Ocean County Clerk’s live election results website, which was updated Oct. 4.

The first question, for a total of $14.6 million, called for expanding the E.J. School with the construction of eight new classrooms including science, technology, engineering and a math lab as well as an art room, gym and student services office. The second question, for a total of $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.  Question 1 had to be approved in order for the district to move ahead with question 2.

“We have learned from the referendum,” Donahower said before asking for a straw poll to test board members’ opinion of meeting with local officials. He and a board member from each town had tried to meet with local officials prior to last week’s meeting to discuss the failed referendum. Some meetings did occur, but Donahower believes a larger, more inclusive meeting is necessary for everyone to move forward. “No matter what happens, we have to have the conversation.”

The school board unanimously agreed a meeting with local officials was the right place to start, but not without some debate.

“We need one school and to save the money to use for the kids,” Jennifer Bott, board vice president and Ship Bottom representative, said when asked what should come next. “We need to work with the towns. We need their support, and to make a decision together.”

Long Beach Township representative Tom Beaty disagreed, in part, saying the board should either sell the LBI Grade School to Ship Bottom, or fix both elementary schools and phase out CHOICE students.

“People on a fixed income are not getting raises,” Allyn Kain, a Surf City representative, said, noting the board is always going to have to have money to repair the LBI Grade School if the decision is made to keep it open.

Barnegat Light representative Marilyn Wasilewski agreed, saying she has always been against the cost of the referendum project, but “the LBI School needs major work. The E.J. School is the better place for kids to be.”

Wasilewski added she’d like to see the original plan presented to voters again. The district, however, according to Surf City representative Kristy Raber, doesn’t have the money to go out to referendum again, nor does it have the money to fix the LBI School and keep it open.

“It’s not safe for the children,” she added.

Colette Southwick, one of four Long Beach Township representatives to the consolidated school board, said the children will be affected by the failed referendum and by whatever steps the board decides next.

“I am all for a super plan,” she said, noting she’d rather be talking about curriculum than shared services to save money. “I 100 percent wanted this (the referendum to pass). We tried. The info didn’t get out.”

Bonnie Picaro, a Long Beach Township representative and proponent of keeping both schools, said the board needs to stop the bickering and the fighting to move ahead.

“I believe we need more dialogue with the public,” she said.

Georgene Hartmann, also a Long Beach Township representative, agreed, noting the board needs to gather more information.

“There is value in each thing,” she said.

With no answers as to what comes next, Donahower said his recent meetings with some of the mayors were "good conversations.”

“As soon as we know something, we will let you know.”

Gina G. Scala

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