Opposites Attract: LBI School Board’s Opposing Actions Could Move District Away from Failed Referendum

Jan 23, 2019
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

The Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education last week took steps to what could finally put the failure of an $18.4 million school expansion and rehabilitation referendum in September 2017 firmly behind it. During the two-hour meeting Jan. 15, the school board approved a motion that would allow Frank Little, a principal in Owen, Little & Associates of Beachwood, to update the Long Beach Island School District’s Long-Range Facilities Plan, as necessary. Later, the board agreed to follow through with an application submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection Green/Blue Acres program for the purchase of the LBI Grade School and an eventual use as a natural park.

When the board agreed to submit the application last month, both the LBI Grade School and the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School were on the table. Last week’s focus, however, seemed to center around the LBI Grade School. Since the board began discussing consolidation in 2010, the 1960s-era school, located in Ship Bottom, has been targeted for closure. In fact, the school was expected to close in June 2018. The failed referendum, rejected 2-to-1 by voters in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City, halted any plans of merging the district’s student body and staff into the E.J. School at the start of this school year.

“The referendum failed a year and a half ago,” said Bonnie Picaro, board vice president, “and we’ve accomplished nothing.”

After the meeting, Picaro acknowledged the board has made at least some steps in moving past the failed referendum. In March 2018, the board hired Little, at a cost of $25,000, to update the April 2015 structural review report for the LBI School. Little was hired again to help facilitate a geo-tech analysis of the school. The Jan. 15 hiring of Little marked the third time he was retained by the board.

Little’s role this time is to develop a long-range facility plan for the LBI School because none exists. It’s tied to a funding application, should the board agree to move forward with repairing the school. The application and its documentation have an April deadline in order to be considered by the state, according to William Fenimore, board president.

“It’s a fail-safe for us,” he said, noting the funding would help in case of a referendum or renovations. “We want to be prepared.”

Fenimore, the sole Ship Bottom representative on the school board also comprised of members from Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township and Surf City, said he sees Little as a consultant for the board, a general contractor who would help find the appropriate architect should one be needed.

“(We need) to have someone we’re confident is going to look out for our best interest,” he said during the discussion, noting individuals in the audience and on the board weren’t satisfied with the architect tied to the referendum.

Kristy Raber, who represents Surf City, disagreed and voted against the motion for a long-range facilities plan. Still, she acknowledged about the referendum, “we got greedy. We didn’t need (all) the money.”

Colette Southwick, one of four representative for Long Beach Township, agreed to approve Little but also suggested the board reach out to Beach Haven school officials to open a line of communication. Beach Haven is the only Island community that does not feed into the consolidated school district. Its students attend the Beach Haven Elementary School through the sixth grade and then the Southern Regional High School District.

Raber and Southwick were among the members who voted to leave the Blue Acres application in place. Fenimore had wanted to withdrawal the application, saying he voted in favor last month but had more time to do his research, and he didn’t believe it would lead to anything. Board member John McMenamin, a Surf City representative, made a motion that would keep the application alive until the board’s next meeting. If the board hasn’t heard from the state by then, it would no longer consider it a viable option. His motion failed.

It may not be a viable option anyway, according to William Huelsenbeck, Ship Bottom mayor, who attended the meeting held in the media center at the LBI Grade School. It was standing room only.

“Blue Acres is about high-liability flooding and properties they want to get off the books,” he said, adding program representatives have been to the borough on several occasions to look at flood-prone land – to no avail. “This school never flooded. It didn’t flood in Sandy.”

When Ship Bottom officials considered purchasing the LBI Grade School from the district several years ago, Huelsenbeck invited the state down to take a look.

“It’s $2 million to knock it down,” he said. “They didn’t want to spend $500,000 on two bayfront lots. They told me for $500,000 they could buy a mile on the Delaware River.”

Former board president James Donahower, who represents Harvey Cedars, said the reason the board agreed to submit an application to the state was because it was looking for solutions that included fiscal responsibility and attempts to keep the LBI Grade School land part of the community.

“It checked a lot of key boxes,” Donahower said, noting many Ship Bottom residents were concerned if the school was closed, the property would be sold off and subdivided.

Southwick said she believes it’s important to take into consideration all options before a decision on the next step is made.

“It shouldn’t be about bricks and mortar,” Huelsenbeck said. “It should be about books and order.”

— Gina G. Scala


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