Status Quo: Failed Referendum Not Officially Vacated, LBI School Board Taking Things Slowly

Nov 29, 2017

The Long Beach Island Consolidated Board of Education is no closer to taking action to vacate the failed $18.4 million referendum than it was two months ago when voters in three Island communities overwhelmingly voted it down by a 2-to-1 margin. It had been anticipated the board would address the formal abandonment of the project, effectively ending its relationship with the architect, at its regular meeting last week, but nowhere in the 90-minute meeting did the topic surface.

Instead, board President James Donahower said he believes the district needs to take baby steps as it recoups from the massive upheaval the referendum left in its wake.

“We still have our contract with the architect,” Donahower said after the meeting. “He did a ton of great work on the project, including all of the official paperwork/approvals. We’re just trying to figure out what our next move is. He needs to know, and so do we.”

As for vacating the failed referendum, which focused on expanding and renovating the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School with the state Department of Education, he acknowledged “the Sept. 26 referendum is a dead soldier. It went down 2-to-1.”

In the meantime, the board is looking to establish a strategic planning committee comprised of district officials, teachers, municipal leaders and members of the general public to discuss ways to move ahead.

“It’s a massive readjustment,” Donahower said. “We’re still trying to figure it out. I fully expect we will need to go out for a referendum at some point in the future in support of whatever we choose to do next, but it will be a different animal. I can’t tell you any more until we get deeper into the process.”

Part of the deep dive, he said, is taking a closer look at the structural integrity of the LBI Grade School to determine whether it can and should remain open. The LBI School has been the bone of contention among proponents of the failed referendum, who claim the school is not safe to continue to house students, despite a $287,000 temporary shoring-up project completed at the school roughly two years ago.

There’s been much debate since the September referendum about the status of the LBI School, which some believed would close at the end of this school year. However, the board never formally voted to close the school. What it did do was vote to consolidate from two schools to one; specifically, it voted to merge the LBI and E.J. schools into a modernized E.J. School. There is actually another vote that has to take place to formally close the school, and that hasn’t happened because the building is still occupied. It can’t happen until the LBI School is vacated.

“In the spring,” Donahower said, “we will check it out and see if it can remain open.”

That will require the board hiring a new structural engineer, preferably someone who isn’t associated with the district or the Island. Frank Little, who is the engineer in most, if not all, of the LBI communities, was cast aside for that very reason by a contingent of board members who supported the referendum. They claimed it would be a conflict of interest for him since municipal officials have made it clear they support a two-school district.

Along those same lines, Ship Bottom resident Steve Moser asked the board to disqualify Superintendent Peter J. Kopack from recommending a structural engineer to do a study of the LBI School because he favors a one-school district.

Additionally, testing the air quality in both schools will be part of the broader scope of things the board seeks to get a handle on in the spring.

— Gina G. Scala

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