Public Session of Pinelands Regional School Board Meeting Feb. 5 Delayed

Jan 31, 2018

The Pinelands Regional School District has announced on its website that the public portion of its board of education working session meeting of Monday, Feb. 5, won’t begin until 8 p.m. Normally the working session meetings begin at 6 p.m. Sometimes, the public is immediately admitted; at other times it has to wait up to an hour or more to be allowed into the Junior High School media center while board members meet in executive session.

Although the announcement that the public session will be delayed will surely be appreciated by attendees, who won’t be left cooling their heels in the hallway, it is unprecedented, indicating the board has many issues to discuss in private.

That could be a major understatement considering how many balls the district is juggling.

The board, with the assistance of the New Jersey School Board, is currently searching for a permanent superintendent of schools. Considering contracts for superintendents generally start on July 1, the clock is ticking loudly with just five months remaining. Pinelands has been without a regular superintendent since Robert L. Blake resigned – under pressure from the board – effective June 30, 2016, with a year left on a three-year contract. The district then lost its interim superintendent, Maryann Banks, when she unexpectedly resigned in December 2017 for health reasons. Cheryl Stevenson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, is currently serving as acting superintendent.

The board, along with Stevenson, must also figure out what the district’s academic schedule will look like for the 2018-19 school year. At the Jan. 17 board of education meeting, both Chuck Romanoli of New Road Construction, the management firm overseeing the $53 million rehabilitation project at the Pinelands Regional high and junior high school buildings that was approved by voters in January 2017, and project architect Brooks Garrison strongly recommended that the high school should be closed for the entire 2018-19 school year while the building’s crumbling brick-face shell is replaced. Indeed, Garrison warned that working on the high school building while students used it would be a “giant liability.”

Romanoli and Garrison’s recommendation stunned at least some of the board members, who said that was the first they had heard of closing the high school for the next school year. Some members of the audience rose to speak against the closing.

At the meeting Stevenson repeatedly stressed that no decision about closing the high school had been made and that many other options were being explored. But she didn’t say what those other options are.

Talk about a ticking clock! Obviously candidates for the superintendent position would like to know what their first year as the district’s head administrator would look like. Even more immediate is the need for Garrison, Romanoli and Pinelands Regional School District Business Administrator Stephen J. Brennan to know what the next school year will entail. That’s because the district has to go out to bid for Phase 2 of the referendum project as soon as possible. Firms will base their bids, in part, on work hours. If construction can be done during the normal workday, they will be able to pay their workers much less than if work is conducted in the evening or nighttime.

At the Jan. 17 meeting, Romanoli said he’d like to see the board officially approve the bids at its March 14 meeting. That timeline, Romanoli told the board, would be critical to allow work at the high school to commence as soon as possible after the end of the 2017-18 school year.

The last thing the district would like to see is a delay in starting Phase 2 of the project. Phase 1 was plagued by delays. The Phase 1 roofing project at the high school was supposed to have been completed by the beginning of the school year. It wasn’t, and due to complications, the building had to be closed to students from Oct. 13 to Jan. 17, necessitating both junior high and high school students to share the junior high building by utilizing split sessions.

Those delays and complications, such as finding and removing – critics claim sloppily and dangerously – asbestos from the roof of the high school building’s D Wing, may have led to another possible discussion in the executive session portion of next Monday’s board of education working session meeting. Board President Susan M. Ernst has been telling the public she wants the board, administration, staff, students and the community to “move on” with the referendum project and the educational goals of the district instead of pointing fingers about the problems this past autumn. But some, and perhaps many, parents and taxpayers still want those responsible for the delays to be held accountable. Targets include the board, the administration, New Road Construction and Garrison Architects, but the bull’s-eye seems to be the Philadelphia-based Kobithen Roofing, which was responsible for the replacement of the high school roof. Kobithen was the lowest responsible bidder for the roofing job, so was awarded a $5,062,000 contract in May 2017.

Critics want some of the payment to Kobithen to be withheld. Romanoli told the board and crowd at the Jan. 17 meeting that “a substantial amount of money, about $765,000,” had yet to be paid to Kobithen.

But will that money ever be paid out? The board can’t discuss the subject in public, owing to litigation or the possibility of litigation.

Meanwhile the district’s critics are worried about the next round of bidding. Does the board, they have asked, have to accept the lowest bid for each Phase 2 element? Board Attorney Amy Houck said the lowest “responsible bid” did have to be accepted under New Jersey law. There is a possible out, she added, saying that a low bid could be refused if you could prove “prior negative experience.” But that is a complicated process.

The Pinelands Regional Board of Education has so much on its plate that it’s questionable if the public will be allowed into its Feb. 5 meeting even by 8 p.m. Recent board meetings have droned on for hours. Considering the late start for the public portion of Monday’s meeting, members of the public planning on attending might want to remember their kindergarten training and bring juice, snacks and a blankie.

— Rick Mellerup

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