The Belleville Board of Education hopes to partner with the township to acquire a former private school and adjoining retail parcel on Washington Avenue to develop a “southern annex” for its congested Middle School.
And under a proposed shared-services agreement, the township would be afforded access to redesigned infrastructure on the properties, including a new two-deck parking facility that would accommodate school employees on one level and residents on the other.
Acquisition of the desired real estate has been pegged at $12.5 million to be financed through a long-term municipal bond. Paying off the debt would be the responsibility of the school district which would be required to provide a $600,000 down payment prior to final adoption of a township bond ordinance.
Properties targeted for acquisition are the Eastern International College site, 251 Washington Ave., and the adjoining King Doors & Windows Remodeling, 259 Washington Ave. Both have been advertised for sale. Eastern is reportedly looking to relocate to Jersey City.
On March 22, the seven-member township governing body, with First Ward Councilwoman Marie Strumolo-Burke and Second Ward Councilman Steve Rovell dissenting, voted to introduce an ordinance appropriating $11.9 million in bonds or notes for the project. A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for April 12, with at least five votes needed for passage.
On March 28, the Board of Education voted to purchase the land and buildings at 251 Washington Ave. for $5 million “subject to: the board’s receipt of [bond] funding from the township and review and approval by the board’s attorney.”
The board also sanctioned a recommendation by District Superintendent Richard Tomko to transfer $250,000 from capital reserve for the down payment on 251 Washington Ave. (Eastern International College) subject to legal review.
When asked why the school trustees had acted only on one property transaction, instead of the two specified in the township’s bond ordinance, and had agreed to provide a lower down payment than the amount specified by the township, Matthew Palladino, district business administrator, said: “The second property is still in active negotiation right now, so I can’t comment further.”
As outlined in the township ordinance, plans call for “demolition of one or more buildings located on (251 and 259 Washington Ave.), renovations to one or more buildings … and construction of a parking deck …” at a cost projected at $12.5 million “which will be financed through the issuance of $11.9 million bonds or notes … and other available funds of the school district.”
A 30-year term is proposed for the bond which the township will be obligated to pay principal and interest through local taxes, the township ordinance says. However, it goes on to say, “the school district shall pay the township fees in the amount necessary for the township to pay amounts due on such bonds or bond anticipation notes….”
“If any fees the school district owes to the township are not paid when due, the township may withhold tax payments due the school district to secure such obligation,” the ordinance says.
Any grant monies that may be acquired in connection with the project can be applied either to the cost of the improvements or paying off the bonds.
The school district will be “responsible for the design, construction and implementation of the project” including legal fees associated with the project and will also be responsible for the “maintenance, upkeep and use of the facilities” provided.
The school district “shall have scheduling preference for the use of the facilities for school purposes and the township shall be able to use the facilities for recreational and other municipal purposes when such purposes do not conflict with the educational and school-related use of the facilities.”
At the March 28 board meeting, Tomko said the district was experiencing a surge in enrollment, with more than 100 new students registered this year, with the Middle School getting a share of that increase, contributing to “overcrowding.”
Seven years ago, when he took over as chief school administrator, Tomko recalled, the school board resorted to redistricting to redistribute sixth-graders from the Middle School among various elementary schools to relieve the pressures of tight classroom space that prevailed at that time.
Since then, however, the same problem has resurfaced, Tomko said, and “we now need four or five additional classrooms to make the Middle School more operational.”
At this point, Tomko said, the availability of real estate so close to the Middle School – especially a college building “with an HVAC system, elevators, carpeting and offices on the ground floor,” would make the facility a good pickup for the district.
If the district does end up with the new space, Tomko said he’s “not sure yet” how it would be used. Ideally, he said, “we would hope to get a science or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) lab in an academy-type setting plus one discipline like math. Or we could place half of our seventh graders there.”
“It’s either that or modules,” he said. “Each module holds two classes, but you’d have to add heat and electricity. Each unit would cost around $800,000.”
Purchasing the Washington Avenue properties is the preferable option, Tomko said.
“We’re trying to avoid leasing,” he said.
The district is already locked into two, 5-year leases of administrative office space at 335 and 387 Union Ave., costing a total of $65,000 a year from its general funds, according to Palladino.
Each space has been occupied for about 15 months, he said.
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Ron Leir | For The Observer
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 WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York