SURF CITY — A December referendum that could result in the closure of one of two district schools on Long Beach Island has created a rift in the small communities and among board members.
Several parents and board members have spoken out against the district’s narrowly approved $7.7 million bond referendum that would make structural improvements at the larger and slightly older Long Beach Island Grade School in Ship Bottom. The improvements would make it possible to close the smaller, kindergarten through second-grade Ethel A. Jacobsen School in Surf City school permanently.
“They developed for this plan, they voted for this plan and they didn’t let us talk about it,” said parent Kristin Power, of Surf City.
Those who support the plan, including five of the nine school board members, say it would save money and create efficiencies in the kindergarten through sixth-grade district of 224 students.
Superintendent Peter Kopak and board President William Fenimore did not respond to requests for comment prior to deadline.
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The problems facing the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District mirror those being grappled with at similarly sized shore districts throughout the state, where year-round residents are dwindling.
In Margate, the school board decided this year to accept tuition students to boost enrollment at the school which is operating two buildings but struggling to fill them. Years earlier, Avalon and Stone Harbor entered into a shared service agreement in order to keep both its schools open — they share some of the lowest enrollments in the state. And Sea Isle City was forced to close its elementary school because enrollment was so low, sending all of its students to Ocean City.
Legislators, especially state Senate President Steve Sweeney, are promoting a plan to consolidate all districts into kindergarten through 12th-grade districts. Gov. Phil Murphy last month announced the release of funding to be used to study consolidation.
At its September meeting, the school board, in a split vote, approved the referendum, which would provide for various renovations and upgrades at the Long Beach Island Grade School, which currently serves a little more than 100 third- through sixth-grade students.
The narrow vote came just two weeks after the board, at a special meeting in August, voted down the proposed referendum 5-4. Board member John McMenanim, of Surf City, who had voted against the referendum in August, brought the motion to the table at the September meeting and this time voted in favor. McMenamin did not say why he changed his vote, and directed all questions regarding the school board to Fenimore.
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Kopak, in a recording of his August presentation to the Board of Education on the referendum, said enrollment has declined over the last decade and demographic studies indicate it will either continue to decline or remain flat. He told board members the district has the 12th highest per-pupil cost in the state at $33,000 — the state average in similarly sized districts is $20,088.
“And the only way to lower it is to reduce the expenses or increase the number of students,” Kopak told the board at the meeting.
The bond would cost taxpayers an additional $17 a year for a home valued at $600,000, Kopak said.
Improvements to be completed through the bond are the repair and replacement of piling under the building, additional and improved ADA access points, HVAC improvements throughout the building included upgraded heating and schoolwide air conditioning, as well as updated lighting and renovated bathrooms. Additional funds from the school’s capital budget would be used for interior improvements to accommodate all grade levels at the LBI School.
“Kopak said of the district’s plan was “very preliminary” and could change.
“There will be times and opportunities that we will be seeking more public input,” he said.
Board member Bonnie Picaro, who voted in favor of the referendum, said this week that the closing of the Jacobsen School was not a done deal and many more discussions with the public should be had.
“For me personally, we have to wait to see what the referendum does and if the public supports us,” Picaro said.
The state Department of Education would need to approve a plan to consolidate into one building, Business Administrator Chris Kelly told board members Aug. 28. Kelly also noted that what will happen to the Ethel Jacobsen School is still unknown.
“We would establish a committee after the referendum to explore options,” she said.
Despite that, some members of the community have created a Facebook group to “Save EJ” and one resident, Sara Colavita, has put forward a proposal to suspend the referendum until April so that language could be added that requires the district to operate the Ethel Jacobsen School for the life of the bond.
Those against the referendum cite various reasons for their discontent with the plan including possible future development at the EJ property, which is currently green space, and ethics concerns among sitting board members.
Power said she feels some board members, like McMenamin, who sits on the Surf City Land Use Board, and those who hold real estate licenses, have conflicting interests in the discussion. Power also pointed to a deed restriction on the Ethel Jacobsen School property, which was deeded to the school district 60 years ago, requiring that if the land were to be sold, the city would be offered first right of refusal. The language also spells out how much money the city would be required to pay for the land: a little more than $140,000, which Power said is too low.
“Fiscally, it’s not benefiting the taxpayers, it’s not benefiting the students. You start to wonder, ‘who is it benefiting,’” Power said. “There’s so many holes in this plan, how did we get here? It’s not our best, we can do better.”
LBI Consolidated has scheduled two public meetings to discuss the upcoming referendum, one on Thursday and another on Oct. 21. The school board next meets Tuesday at 7 p.m.