Pinelands Regional School District Signs Contracts for Roof Replacements

Tuckerton Tax Hike and Discrepancy in Enrollment Figures Explained
May 17, 2017

The Pinelands Regional School District has awarded the first two big contracts for projects to be paid for by the $53 million referendum questions passed by voters in January. At its May 10 meeting, the board of education approved a $2,785,689 contract for the replacement of the junior high school roof with Jottan Inc., a roofing contractor based in Florence. The district had received seven bids, ranging from Jottan’s winner to a high of $5,588,922.

Meanwhile, a contract of $5,062,000 was awarded to Philadelphia-based Mike Kobithen Roofing for the replacement of the high school roof. That job had garnered six bids, ranging from $3,987,000 to $5,947,745. The low bid, from Northeast Roof Maintenance of Perth Amboy, was declared “non-responsive due to its unilateral mistake in completing its bid proposal form and its subsequent voluntary withdrawl (sic) of its bid.”

The contracts were a bit of good news/bad news for the district. Business Administrator Stephen J. Brennan later told The SandPaper that $4,373,340 had been budgeted for the junior high school roof, meaning Jottan’s bid came in $1,587,651 under the estimate. On the other hand, he reported $3,728,340 had been budgeted for the high school roof, meaning the accepted bid came in $1,333,660 over the estimate.

“This one (the high school roof) is tricky because part of the roof contract is to address some of the brickface problem (in the high school’s walls),” Brennan said. “The total budget to replace all of the brick on the high school is $15 million. So to say our bids came in $1.3 million over isn’t entirely accurate because a portion of that difference is built into the brick budgets of $15 million.”

The board of education also officially passed the district’s 2017-18 budget totaling $34,502,159, a budget that had mixed results for the district’s taxpayers.

Residents of Eagleswood and Little Egg Harbor townships will actually get a break this year. The owner of a $200,000 home in the former will pay $2.58 less per month under this new budget while a counterpart in Little Egg Harbor will see a monthly drop of $1.98.

On the other hand, homeowners in Bass River and Tuckerton will see tax increases. The owner of a $200,000 house in Bass River will see a monthly increase of $2.25 this coming year while the owner of an equivalent home in Tuckerton will see his or her taxes take a $10.22 monthly leap, totaling a $122.64 increase for the year.

The SandPaper later asked Brennan for an explanation of the bombshell hitting Tuckerton.

“Pinelands Regional school tax levy is divided up among the four towns based on enrollment and equalized values,” responded Brennan in an email. “The official percent share calculation based on those figures comes from the NJDOE (New Jersey Department of Education). Basically what I do is prepare the entire budget, come up with the total tax levy ($19,276,034 for 2017-18) for Pinelands and multiply it by each town’s percentage share. Then I take each town’s share of the full $19 million tax levy and divide it by each town’s ratable base.”

The NJDOE determined Little Egg Harbor’s percentage of the Pinelands budget share would be 73.159 percent, down from 75.321 percent in 2016-17, making for a decrease of 2.162 percent. Eagleswood’s share dropped from 7.478 percent to 7.186 percent, a decrease of 0.292 percent. Bass River had a 6.153 percent share in 2016-17; it decreased to 6.068 percent in 2017-18, a drop of 0.085 percent. But Tuckerton’s share zoomed from 11.054 percent last year to 13.585 percent this year.

That may not sound like much. But as Brennan explained, “The percent shifts among the four towns every year. Usually it is 1 percent or so. But this year 2.5 percent shifted to Tuckerton away from the other three towns. In Tuckerton’s case, the enrollment in Pinelands increased, and their equalized valuations increased.”

So the tax rate increase for Tuckerton residents wasn’t because the district’s local tax levy went up by 1.5 percent over 2016-17. It was because of the state’s determination of the borough’s “share,” which was in a large way due to an influx of Tuckerton students into the Pinelands Regional district, thus affecting the state’s figures. Tuckerton School District Superintendent Janet Gangemi had said while explaining her district’s 2017-18 budget that her district is down 20 students from last year due to a large sixth-grade class in 2016.

“The percent shifts among the four towns every year,” wrote Brennan. “But this year 2.5 percent shifted to Tuckerton, which means 2.5 (percent) shifted from the other three towns. In Tuckerton’s case, their enrollment increased and their equalized valuations increased.

“Theoretically, if our tax levy increased zero dollars between ’16-17 and ’17-18, Tuckerton will still see an increase.”

Figures Confuse

Pinelands Situation

If the numbers in this story have been confusing, get ready for even more mind numbing. Education, according to the old saying, depends on the three “R’s,” reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. Well, here’s hoping you paid attention in your math classes.

The SandPaper reporter and Pinelands Regional Board of Education President Susan Ernst got into what can safely be understated as a heated discussion toward the end of the board’s May 10 meeting. At an April 19 meeting, Ernst justified the laying off of six teachers, including the head coach and three other coaches from the Wildcat football team, on a declining enrollment.

“Since Sandy,” she said at that time, “we have lost 300 students.”

Superstorm Sandy crashed into Southern Ocean County on Oct. 29, 2012. As The SandPaper reported in a May 3 article, according to the enrollment numbers posted on the district’s own website, the “advertised enrollment” as of Oct. 15, 2012, had been 1,671 students. On Oct. 15, 2016, the district’s advertised enrollment showed 1,602 students on the roll. That was a drop of only 69 students.

Ernst stood firm at the May 10 meeting, saying she had gotten her figures from an audit. That was despite the fact Brennan had said the “advertised” enrollment figures, which he, not an audit, provides, are the official numbers provided to the state, which uses them to determine things such as state aid.

“I don’t work for the state,” Ernst stated.

The SandPaper has been working ever since trying to square the advertised and audit numbers. A large part of the problem is that the advertised numbers, as per state requirements, come from an Oct. 15 “snapshot.” Those are the enrollment numbers used by the NJDOE despite the fact that a district’s enrollment may change throughout the rest of the year.

“The numbers I used when I spoke to the public were taken from our yearly audit by Holman, Frenia, Allison CPA and Consulting Firm,” Ernst had told The SandPaper in a May 8 email. “These numbers reflect actual student enrollment at the end of the year.”

Student enrollments may, for sure, change during the course of a school year owing to families moving away or moving in, drop-outs, etc. Still, those numbers must recalibrate at the beginning of each school year. And the audit numbers Ernst is speaking of are, from Exhibit J-17 of the latest audit, “based on annual October district count” – in other words, basically the figures appearing on the district website.

So the discrepancy between the numbers remains jarring. Perhaps some of it can be explained by the difference in enrollments between October and June. Still, the website says the Pinelands district had 1,671 students in October 2012 while the audit claims there were 1,781 students in 2012. That means the advertised numbers were actually lower than the audit numbers, which means the drop-off in student numbers since then had to be smaller than Ernst claims.

Confusing? Indeed.

Here’s how Ernst, using the audit, came to her “300” number. (She has actually since said her number should have been 297.) She subtracted the audit’s 2016 enrollment number, 1,577, from its 2011 number, 1,824, to come up with 247.

“In addition,” she said in an email to The SandPaper, “in Budget Committee, members were told in February that our enrollment was down 50 students this year. In March, the committee was informed that the number was closer to 70. I used 50 as an estimate… not 70.”

So if you add the 50 to the 247, you come up with 297.

It is understandable why Ernst used the 2011 figures to claim a 297-student loss in the district since Superstorm Sandy. After all, 2011 was the year before Sandy.

But the district’s website says the district had an enrollment of 1,754 in October 2011. If you take the advertised enrollment figure of 1,602 students in October 2016 and subtract it from the 1,754 recorded in October 2011, you get 152. Toss in Ernst’s estimate of 50 students lost over the course of the current school year and you’re up to 202. But that still leaves 95 students unaccounted for.

Here’s the explanation. Brennan said at the May 10 meeting that budgets were prepared using the previous year’s enrollment numbers, so the audit enrollment numbers in 2011 actually came from 2010. The advertised enrollment figure for 2010 was 1,823. Subtract the 2016 advertised enrollment figure of 1,602 and you have 221. Add in Ernst’s 50 drop from this year and you end up with 271, only a difference of 26 from the district’s published advertised figures, much less of a discrepancy.

No matter what figures you use, there is no doubt Pinelands has suffered from a declining enrollment since 2008. Remember, that was the year the Great Depression hit America and the implosion of Atlantic City helped wipe out jobs and households in Southern Ocean County even before Superstorm Sandy hit.

According to the audit, the school enrollment in 2008 was 1,908. The audit says that number had declined to 1,577 in 2016, a drop of 331 students without even taking into account what happened between October 2016 and now.

Ernst wasn’t exaggerating when she talked about the decline in the district’s population. But one had to spend hours and hours investigating the discrepancies to be able to square the figures.

The Pinelands Regional School District has another problem besides declining enrollment: PR. When public statements are made that dramatically clash with figures on the district’s website, it is easy to see why so many members of the public – and reporters, for that matter – quickly become skeptical. It is a problem the district must solve if it wants to maintain the public’s confidence.

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