Will Belleville BOE seek referendum?

BELLEVILLE —

Those entrusted with the Belleville public schools’ future and some residents don’t sound entirely convinced.

So, before a $48.5 million referendum to fix “life-safety” issues at the district’s nine schools goes to the voters, the Board of Education has to figure out if it’s worth the financial pain to local taxpayers.

If the board puts this plan on the ballot, it means that the owner of the “average” home, assessed at $238,100, can expect to cough up an additional $156 a year for a 20-year bond or $139 more for a 25-year bond.

But officials noted that these are “very preliminary” numbers and “subject to change based upon debt structure, timing of bond issue and further interest rate estimates.”

That was the message conveyed at a special BOE meeting last Wednesday, July 26, by consultants Jerry Rubino, of Di Cara/Rubino Architects of Wayne, and attorney Lisa Gorab, of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer of Woodbridge.

Here’s the preliminary breakdown of projected per-school costs: Belleville High School, $9.9 million; Belleville Middle School, $4.4 million; School 3, $3 million; School 4, $5.1 million; School 5, $3.2 million; School 7, $3.8 million; School 8, $3.5 million; School 9, $2.3 million; and School 10, $2.2 million, for a total of $37.8 million. An additional $10.7 million is built in for professional and contingency fees, for a grand total of $48.5 million.

Plans call for exterior elevators and bathroom renovations in Schools 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 10 to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); repairs to masonry walls, upgrades to heating and ventilation and electrical service, replacement of lighting, clocks and intercoms and site work at all schools; new windows at BHS, Schools 3, 7, 9 and 10; and roof work at BHS, the middle school, Schools 4, 9 and 10.

Most of the aging schools still have their original windows, Rubino said, “and the district has a serious problem with water infiltration.” In many schools, he said, “boilers have exceeded their useful life” and electrical service “is in disarray.”

If the referendum is submitted to voters for a special election on Sept. 26 – the first such opportunity being considered – and it passes, construction bonds would be issued January 2018 with the first tax impact during fiscal 2019.

Gorab said the state Department of Education has agreed to pick up 49.75% of debt service aid on the project but “the referendum must pass” for the district to qualify for that assistance.

“The state is not willing to be your partner unless you approve the referendum,” she stressed.

Gorab said the timing for going the bonding route is “good because the [interest] rates are still relatively low.”

Still, several members of the public in the audience remained skeptical about going forward with the project, given the enormous expenditure, coupled with the municipal tax burden.

Vincent Frantantoni, who attended a project planning session last year, questioned whether the BOE would be overpaying for some of the proposed work items, such as “$430,000 for wall cabinets and countertops” at one elementary school.

“There’s page after page of extreme prices,” he said. “It puzzles.”

Rubino, who said his firm represents 55 school districts in New Jersey, replied he was inclined to “agree with you – I’ve had people tell me they can build a house for that money. But when you bid it out, that’s what it’s going to cost.”

Much of the work outlined for the new project “could be done by our maintenance people,” Frantantoni reasoned. “This bond ordinance cannot be allowed to go through in its present form. … We want to pay for it sensibly, properly. Stop this in its tracks.”

Resident Jeff Mattingly concurred, saying the proposed project proposes “a laundry list, a magnitude of endeavor, that’s simply not realistic.”

To achieve ADA compliance, “we can potentially bus handicapped kids” to School 3, for example, Mattingly said. Outfitting six schools with elevators “seems unnecessary to me,” he added.

Nonetheless, Rubino said, it would be wise for Belleville to take advantage of the state aid offer while it’s on the table. “This is the highest percent of aid I’ve seen working 27 years for school districts in New Jersey. … You want to wait till a boiler blows?”

Still, Trustee Lisa Lopez griped: “We should’ve been given a more thorough presentation [by the professionals]. This is not something I can support. The public is right. We should enter into this with more caution, more information. Show us what work [items are] more important than others.”

Schools Superintendent Richard Tomko said the list of work items included in the referendum represents a paring down of a prior $80 million work plan that was scaled down to “prioritized capital repairs.”

“This is 100% health and safety,” Tomko said. “No fluff. This is as transparent as you could possibly get.”

State monitor Tom Egan added: “God forbid, bricks are going to fall – that’s not going to happen on my watch.”

BOE president Christine Lamparello urged her colleagues to, “step up to the plate and do what we have to do – what’s best for the children.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.