By Ron Leir
A second try this year to get township voters to support a multi-million dollar facelift for the public schools has failed and district officials are pretty much throwing in the towel.
The Dec. 13 referendum which proposed spending $28.8 million for district-wide improvements, tied to a sale of Lincoln School, was defeated by a vote of 1,469 to 1,157, including mail-in ballots.
The measure carried in only three of the township’s 15 voting districts.
A solemn mood prevailed at Board of Education headquarters the evening of the vote as messengers from each polling site trudged in with the disappointing results.
Schools Supt. Tracey Marinelli, who had given birth to a baby boy only a few days previously, board trustees and members of the Committee of 40 who advocated for the referendum could only listen and watch as those numbers were written on a Smart Board by School Business Administrator David DiPisa.
“Thank you, everyone,” Marinelli told the group of supporters gathered in the board conference room. “We couldn’t have done anything different. You guys worked your tails off. I just wish the voters felt the same way. Tomorrow’s another day.”
Because the referendum proposed the use of $3.8 million in state grants to finance new boilers, roofs, windows and HVAC systems as part of the overall school plant upgrade, Marinelli said that the district would have to forfeit those funds.
“I hope (that loss of funding) doesn’t cause serious safety issues,” Marinelli said.
Within the past five years, Marinelli said, “we’ve had two fire escapes collapse and ceilings fall in at three schools.” Fortunately, classes weren’t in session at the time of those mishaps, she said.
Asked what the district could do as a fallback plan, Marinelli replied: “There is no ‘Plan B,’ we just keep trucking along.”
Under the referendum plan, no new school construction was proposed. Instead, a reconfiguration of the school population was to take place with Franklin School and Jefferson Annex to house all kindergarteners, Columbus and Washington schools would handle grades 1 to 4 and Roosevelt and Jefferson schools would take grades 5 to 8.
Given that scenario, every elementary school was slated to get an elevator, computer lab, media center, music room, combination art/world language room and the capacity for taking three or more sections of special needs students.
Additionally, Columbus and Roosevelt schools were to get a gym/cafeteria; Jefferson and Roosevelt were slated for three science labs apiece; and the high school would have gotten a renovated auditorium, cafeteria and air-conditioning.
But now, those plans have to be scrapped.
What will happen, starting with the fall 2012 term, is redistricting, Marinelli said. It is hoped that re-drafting the boundaries for each school will help, to some extent, in remedying the unbalanced enrollment in some schools.
But the district’s future remains uncertain.
Board President Ellen Young said she was “truly disappointed” with the vote in which “the only true losers are the children. I don’t feel you could put a price on education. They are our future and I, as a parent of a child in this district, feel we’ve failed our children.”
As for the projected annual tax increase of $199 for the “average” home for the 15 years it would have taken to pay off the debt for the improvements, Young said: “Taxes are always going to go up – with or without this.”
Asked what options were open to the district at this point, Young shrugged, saying: “We’re done.”
Only board member James Hooper, speaking personally, held out some hope of possible state intervention.
“We need to go to Gov. Christie and our state legislators,” Hooper said, “and say that we need some type of minimum standard for school facilities (targeted) for middle school students – things like science labs and media centers.”
Hooper said that Lyndhurst homeowners – like every other town – “contribute our tax money to the ‘Abbott Districts’ but we don’t get the same facilities they get. Maybe it will turn out that districts like Lyndhurst that lack those type of facilities are a small number, in which case it’s not going to cost the state much to remedy that.”
A state education task force appointed by the governor is due shortly to issue a report touching on state school funding so maybe Hooper will get his wish.
Time will tell.