Professional Fees Hover at $1 Million for Long Beach Island School District’s Failed Referendum

Nov 22, 2017

The Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education spent nearly $1 million on legal and architectural fees associated with the $18.4 million referendum shot down by voters in three Island communities earlier this fall. DiCara Rubino Architects was paid $486,062.46, of which $221,459.98 was tied to the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School, according to a review of the bills submitted to the district as of December 2016. Only the line items pertaining to the referendum were calculated and totaled. The Wayne, N.J.-based firm was charged with designing the eight-classroom addition at the E.J. School, which included a science, technology, engineering and math lab as well as an art room, gym and student services office.

This work, for a total of $14.6 million, was rejected by voters in Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City Sept. 26.  Voters also discarded a second question, for a total of $3.6 million, that 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 passed in Barnegat Light and Harvey Cedars.

Out of 6,157 registered voters in Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City, only 1,717 went to polls for the special election. Of that number, 1,127 voted against question one while 579 voted in favor. Question two failed by a vote of 1,100 against and just 550 in favor, according to the Ocean County Clerk’s live election results website, which was updated Oct. 4.

The same process was used when reviewing legal bills submitted by Sciarrillo, Cornell, Merlino, McKeever and Osborne, LLC, a Westfield, N.J.-based firm, from 2012 through this past summer. Those bills show the district incurred legal fees of $482,555.83 for the referendum project only.

“Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Ship Bottom and Surf City spent a combined total of $451,935.80 for all their legal fees during the same time period,” Kathleen Flanagan, chief financial officer for Barnegat Light and Ship Bottom, said, helping to put the spending into perspective.

With the failed referendum behind them, board President James Donahower has said he believes it is important for the district and local officials to get on the same page. He leads an ad-hoc committee of the school board, along with members Bonnie Picaro, Allyn Kain and Colette Southwick, who met with mayors Francis Hodgson, Surf City; William Huelsenbeck, Ship Bottom; 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 last month to begin rebuilding trust between the two sides. A second meeting is slated for December.

At the Oct. 30 meeting, municipal officials made it clear they do not like or trust the board attorney and architect, according to the meeting minutes. They also told the committee the district attorney and architect fees are too costly, and there is no transparency at the school board level, culminating in a deep distrust of the board.

The full school board was expected to take action at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night to vacate the failed referendum, effectively ending the architect’s contract with the district. Once those steps are taken, the board will begin to look for an independent structural engineer to provide a thorough assessment of the condition of the LBI Grade School.

District officials have been working toward merging the two elementary schools since 2010, when the district 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 was not accepted. 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 was not accepted.

Gina G. Scala

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