Residents ‘School’ LBI Board of Education on Referendum Defeat

Oct 25, 2017

Members of the public who attended last week’s meeting of the Long Beach Island Board of Education meeting didn’t go to hear what the board planned on doing in wake of the 2-to-1 referendum defeat, but to be heard – again – before next steps are decided.

Voters in five Island communities voiced their displeasure with the board’s previous plan Sept. 26 by rejecting the two-question referendum. The first question, for a total of $14.6 million, called for expanding the Ethel A. Jacobsen School with the construction of eight new classrooms including science, technology, engineering and a math lab as well as an art room, gym and student services office. The second question, for a total of $3.6 million, 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. Question 1 had to be approved in order for the district to move ahead with question 2.

Barnegat Light resident Pete Russo, a retired architect, said he commended the board for wanting to provide a better education for the students but they were going about it the wrong way.

“Why spend $18 million when you have under-utilized (what you already have)?” Russo asked, noting the E.J. School can currently accommodate 261 students, and the LBI Grade School 350. Selling off the LBI Grade School to expand the smaller school doesn’t make sense, especially with the current average class size between 10 and 13 students. “(It’s almost) like a private school.”

John Gutbrod, a Surf City resident, agreed, saying he failed to see why the board thought it needed a school to lodge 400 students when it’s too expensive for most families to move to the Island.

“Where is the money coming from?” he asked. “People have reached the limit of what they can pay.”

Bill Hutson, president of The Joint Council of Taxpayers Association of LBI, agreed.

“We want really good schools,” he said, “but spending $18 million is ridiculous. We didn’t work hard to put it (the referendum) down. You’ve got to hear what people are saying. It didn’t go well.”

Robert Kraft of Ship Bottom asked why the consolidation wasn’t focused on the LBI Grade School if that school has more student capacity without the cost of a renovation. Board member Kristy Raber said the district had sunk millions into the LBI Grade School years ago, and it still needs millions of dollars worth of repairs.

“We don’t have the money to keep the school open,” she said, noting it isn’t safe for children.

Ship Bottom resident Ken Flynn disagreed, and urged the board to replace its antiquated ideas with new ones.

“Voters are not stupid,” he said.

Ship Bottom Mayor William Huelsenbeck, who had opposed the referendum, said, “Certain things need to get done to get consensus. We don’t know the way the world is going to go, but once you get rid of public land, you can never get it back.”

Last year, Ship Bottom officials, who do not want to see the LBI Grade School property become residential housing, offered $4 million to purchase the grade school and property, with the intention of keeping the building and open space. Their offer was not accepted. 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 also went nowhere.

Gina G. Scala

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