LBI School Board Ponders Next Step After Failed Referendum

Oct 04, 2017

The Long Beach Island Board of Education has never voted to close the LBI Grade School in favor of the Ethel Jacobsen School – at least not formally.

“The board voted to consolidated from two schools to one; specifically it voted to consolidate from the LBI and E.J. schools to a modernized E.J. School. Therefore, yes, it would seem that the board voted to close the LBI School,” James Donahower, board president, said. “However, it’s not that simple. There is actually another vote that has to take place to formally close the school, and that hasn’t happened because the building is still occupied. It can’t happen until the LBI School is vacated.”

Although it was anticipated this is the final school year for the LBI Grade School in Ship Bottom, the board has not decided what the next steps will be now that voters in five Island municipalities shot down the $18.4 million referendum to fund the expansion and renovation of the Jacobsen School to accommodate the district’s nearly 230 students.

“We didn’t do a good enough job of dispelling rumors and correcting the rampant misinformation,” Donahower said following the referendum defeat on Sept. 26. “As a result, too many voters believed they were saving the LBI School when they voted ‘no,’ when in fact that’s not what they did.”

He said the district will do a better job next time, “and there will be a next time.”

Voters in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City were asked to vote on two questions last week. The first, for a total of $14.6 million, called for expanding the E.J. School in Surf City 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.

The referendum was structured so voters had to approve Question 1 for the district to move ahead with Question 2. Question 1 failed, with 1,116 votes against and 573 in favor, according to numbers posted to the Ocean County Clerk’s Office the morning after the Sept. 26 election. Question 2 also failed, with just 544 ballots of support and 1,089 against.

As a general matter, a special election in a Type II district can be held on only four specific dates throughout the year (either January, March, September or December) with 60 days prior notice, said David Saenz, a public information officer for the state Department of Education.

“Neither the initial decision by the ALJ (administrative law judge) nor the commissioner’s decision noted a problem with this turnaround, suggesting that it’s fine for a district to pose the question in back-to-back special elections,” he said, noting a Clark Township school referendum was put before voters three times. The first two times the wording was identical, he said. The third time, the referendum was modified, he noted.

The state’s responsibility, Saenz said, is limited to review, but only if requested by the district.

“If a referendum for a project without excess costs fails, and a referendum regarding the same project, with or without excess costs, has failed within the three years prior, the district may submit the project to the commissioner,” he said, “and request the commissioner approve the project and authorize the issue of school bonds for the local share of the project.”

Financing for school projects is generally overseen by the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act, and the provisions don’t specify whether ensuing questions should be identical or modified, or how many times the question may be posed to the voters, according to Saenz.

“These matters (are left) to the district’s discretion,” he said, noting any later referendum would have to comply with the scheduling and notice provisions. “Whether additional review for educational adequacy would be required if the question were modified would depend on the nature of the changes. The district is permitted to seek review by the commissioner following two failed referenda.”

The school board has been working toward merging the two elementary schools since 2010, when it was asked to consider it as a cost-saving measure, according to LBI Consolidated School District Superintendent Peter J. Kopack. Enrollment was declining at that time but has since stabilized at about 230 students, he has said. The LBI School property was listed for sale at $9.5 million in 2011 when the school district decided to merge the two schools. The price was later lowered.

In 2014, then-Surf City Mayor Leonard T. Connors Jr. asked the school district to consider an offer to sell the Jacobsen school property to the borough. It went nowhere. Ship Bottom officials, who do not want to see the LBI Grade School property become residential housing, offered $4 million to purchase the school and property, with the intention of keeping the building and open space. Their offer also went nowhere.

In the months leading up to the vote, officials in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City passed resolutions opposing the referendum.

One of the biggest points of contention for Surf City officials was the district’s resolute stance it doesn’t have to conform to federal regulations when it comes to flood proofing the current E.J. School. A letter from FEM general engineer/architect Clark Brewer reaffirmed the borough’s position, saying “we believe that the addition would not be considered a separate structure even with a 2-hour firewall. We believe that any future ‘addition’ will still be considered part of one structure, therefore the whole building will need to be brought up to NFIP (National Flood Insurance Plan) standards.”

Whether this issue will be addressed is unknown. The school board will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17 in the E.J. School library.

Gina G. Scala

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