Long Beach Island Municipal and School Officials Making Progress

Dec 13, 2017

After years of doubt and misgivings regarding the Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education’s handling of plans to consolidate the district’s two primary schools, Ship Bottom Mayor William Huelsenbeck sees a light at the end of the tunnel. He was among local officials from five Island communities who met with an ad hoc committee of the school board in October to find common ground after the $18.4 million school referendum to expand and renovate the Ethel A. Jacobsen School failed by a margin of 2-to-1 earlier this fall.

“I believe in the end we’re getting back to a two-school system,” Huelsenbeck told council members and members of the audience at the borough council’s monthly meeting Nov. 28.

At issue for officials and a majority of voters in three Island communities (the referendum passed in Barnegat Light and Harvey Cedars) is the closing of the LBI Grade School in favor of merging nearly 230 district students into a modernized E.J. School. The relationship between the school board and Long Beach Township and the boroughs of Ship Bottom and Surf City became so contentious, officials in those communities passed resolutions opposing the referendum.

“There are die-hard people who aren’t going to change their minds,” Huelsenbeck acknowledged, noting that since 2002 the LBI Grade School hasn’t been adequately maintained. “These are the same people who didn’t maintain it (the LBI Grade School).”

Although the school board hasn’t made an official decision or moved to vacate the failed referendum with the state Department of Education, it will continue to meet with local elected officials in a bid to re-establish trust. In fact, the second meeting is expected to take place this week, school board President James Donahower said.

“It’s a committee meeting, not a public meeting,” added Donahower, who along with board members Allyn Kain, Bonnie Picaro and Colette Southwick, district Superintendent Peter Kopack and Business Administrator Megan Gally, met with mayors Francis Hodgson, Surf City; Huelsenbeck; Joseph Mancini, Long Beach Township; and Jonathan Oldham, Harvey Cedars as well as Township Commissioner Joseph Lattanzi, Surf City Councilman William Hodgson and Barnegat Light Councilman Scott Sharpless.

After the Oct. 30 meeting, Oldham said he would be open to having a public meeting once the future use of the building is determined.

“Such a meeting would make sense because there will be a lot of money involved in whatever plan is decided,” he said. “When that will happen, I don’t know yet.”

The school board is taking baby steps as it maneuvers through what Donahower calls “a massive readjustment” for the district, which was asked to consider consolidation in 2010 and has been working since then to present a referendum to voters supporting the idea.

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” he said at the school board’s Nov. 21 meeting. “I fully expect we will need to go out for a referendum at some point in the future in support of whatever we choose to do next, but it will be a different animal. I can’t tell you any more until we get deeper into the process.”

Whatever happens next will include the board taking a closer look at the structural integrity of the LBI Grade School to determine whether it can and should remain open. The LBI School has been the bone of contention among proponents of the failed referendum, who claim the school is not safe to continue to house students, despite a $287,000 temporary shoring-up project completed at the school roughly two years ago.

There’s been much debate since the September referendum about the status of the LBI School, which some believed would close at the end of this school year. However, the board never formally voted to close the school. What it did do was vote to consolidate from two schools to one; specifically, it voted to merge the LBI and E.J. schools into a modernized E.J. School. There is actually another vote that has to take place to formally close the LBI School, and that can’t happen until the LBI School is vacated.

In October, local officials told the ad hoc committee they do not approve of the board selling off its assets, according to minutes from that meeting made public last month. They are in favor of the best facilities possible for the children of Long Beach Island, and strongly urged the board to reassess the educational needs of the students and convey the costs to them for review and endorsement.

“They will support funding to pay for essentials via referendum or budget increases,” according to the Oct. 30 meeting minutes. “There is no support for a one-school solution at this time.”

— Gina G. Scala


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