Municipal Officials, Long Beach Island School District Divided on Structural Review of LBI School

Dec 20, 2017

When an ad-hoc committee of the Long Beach Island Board of Education was formed to meet with municipal officials, the goal was for the two sides to find common ground in a bid to move beyond a pulverizing $18.4 million referendum that voters in three Island communities overwhelmingly rejected nearly 90 days ago. On some levels, that goal has been achieved, but on others, the two sides remain divided.

The latest point of contention is why the district is hesitant to consider using Frank Little as a structural engineer to determine the immediate and thorough assessment of the LBI Grade School, which some board members claim is unsafe for continued operation. Little, borough engineer in most, if not all, of the Island communities, coordinated a structural review, performed by Harrison-Hamnett PC of Pennington in 2015, of both the LBI Grade School and the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School.

“Why would the board consider Frank Little a conflict considering they already used him for the first report?” asked Surf City Mayor Francis Hodgson, who attended along with Surf City Councilman William Hodgson and Borough Administrator Mary Madonna, who took notes for the mayor. Also in attendance were mayors William Huelsenbeck, Ship Bottom; Joseph Mancini, Long Beach Township; Jonathan Oldham, Harvey Cedars and Township Commissioner Joseph Lattanzi, according to the minutes of the Dec. 11 ad-hoc committee meeting. District representatives included board President James Donahower, board members Allyn Kain, Bonnie Picaro and Colette Southwick, district Superintendent Peter Kopack and Business Administrator Megan Gally.

Kain, who represents Surf City, said Little’s report was not agreed to, and not approved, according to the Dec. 11 ad-hoc committee meeting minutes.

At Surf City’s monthly borough council meeting two days later, Hodgson said at least one board member said they didn’t want Little for the assessment work because “he was on the other side.”

“I reminded them we’re all on the same side,” Hodgson said during his report to council Dec. 13.

Donahower said the board wants an “expert we can all agree on,” according to the Dec. 11 meeting minutes.

“Frank Little is still around because he is a professional and a good professional,” Huelsenbeck noted during the ad-hoc committee meeting.

If the ad-hoc committee and the mayors agree to use Little for the structural review, then it’s up to the committee to sell the idea to the rest of the board, Lattanzi said, according to minutes from the Dec. 11 meeting.

A structural engineer is needed to provide an assessment of the LBI School, and to conduct air quality tests at both the schools. Last month, Donahower has said both are slated for the spring.

“We are figuring things out,” Donahower told municipal officials. “The ball is being kicked down the road in a positive way.”

To expedite moving forward with the structural assessment of the LBI School, Harvey Cedars Mayor Jonathan Oldham asked whether it made sense for the next meeting to be at the LBI School so a walk-through could be conducted, according to the minutes. His suggestion didn’t seem to gain traction, except for Huelsenbeck noting there have already been two walk-throughs of the LBI School.

The unresolved issue with Little as a viable structural engineer could be problematic of some larger issue municipal officials have with the district. In October, elected officials told the ad-hoc committee they do not support the district selling off assets, nor do they support a one-school system.

“I think they resent the mayors,” Hodgson told his council Dec. 13. “Certain people are trying to pit the PTA against the mayors.”

Hodgson’s bigger complaint, though, is that the district still doesn’t know what to do about the architect now that the referendum failed. When he asked the question Dec. 11, he was told the contract did include wording about payment if the referendum failed, but the amount of that payment was unknown.

At a special meeting more than a month ago, the school board directed its attorney to review the district’s contract with the architect to determine what needs to be done to move on from the referendum, and whether there would be a penalty associated with walking away from the project. There’s been no discussion, at least publicly, since the Nov. 14 meeting. Whether the board will address the issue at its last meeting of the year, slated for Dec. 19, was not known as of press time.

But the lack of movement on formally vacating the referendum is frustrating municipal officials, prompting Hodgson to ask the board what its position is on the matter. The ad-hoc committee agreed they don’t know where they stand, and likely won’t until the scope of the work for the LBI School is known and what the cost will be.

Huelsenbeck, according to the meeting minutes, told the ad-hoc committee the district dropped the ball in 2002 when it authorized only a portion of the work at the LBI Grade School to be performed.

“One of the big money things at the LBI School is the floor,” he said, noting the necessities of keeping the school operational, not the “bells and whistles” that will jack up the cost of fixing the school.

District and municipal officials agreed to continue meeting on an as-needed basis.

“I think it was good to get together for 45 minutes,” Donahower said, noting the ad-hoc committee had nothing new to report, but they all agreed to a second meeting in December, and he was insistent that they honor that agreement. “The spirit of collaboration will require regular maintenance.”

— Gina G. Scala

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