Boro floats 'bare-bones' school referendum
February 2, 2006
BY SUE MORGAN, Staff Writer

Taxpayers will be asked to pick up $18.1M of total $29.8 M tab

EATONTOWN - The lockers that protrude into the hallways at Memorial School could be history if the local Board of Education's total $29.8 million construction referendum is given the green light by district taxpayers next month.

In the latest version of the recently revised construction referendum, now scheduled for a March 14 vote, property owners will be asked to contribute $18.1 million toward the costs of renovating, upgrading and adding onto the four school buildings in the K-8 school district, according to a fact sheet provided by the district this week.

The school board's ad hoc referendum committee, along with district Superintendent Jean E. Hoover, Business Administrator Norma M. Tursi, and project architect Robert Garrison of Garrison Architects, presented the latest drawings and an explanation of the plan during their meeting on Monday night.

Should voters agree to pick up their share of the overall tab, the state's Department of Education has pledged to commit $11.7 million, or about 40 percent of the total costs, of the projects deemed necessary to bring the structures into compliance with state standards, according to Garrison, whose firm specializes in schools construction.

Unlike the $35.6 million building referendum the district had originally planned to put before voters last September, the new package calls for better use of existing facilities and more renovations than actual new construction, Garrison pointed out. To accommodate small group instruction for special education or minimal enrollment, a classroom now measuring 800 square feet could be divided into two 400-square-foot spaces holding two separate classes, Garrison explained.

"It's a bare-bones referendum," Garrison said. "We're not building to meet any increasing demand, but we're maximizing what we have." The state will give greater subsidies to school districts that choose to renovate existing facilities rather than undergo extensive new building, Garrison told the board.

"Renovation pays more [state subsides] than new construction," he said. The average state subsidy given to districts provided by the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp. (NJSCC) has been 23 percent, Garrison said. "We're getting the maximum amount for a school district of this type," he said.

The original plan to demolish a large portion of Memorial, a seventh- and eighth-grade building, and rebuild it into a grade 6-8 middle school, has been abandoned to cut costs and focus on the district's most pressing needs, officials said last week.

Residents' comments during a series of referendum workshops last year revealed skepticism about the need for a new middle school in light of the expense and the anticipated shutdown of Fort Monmouth, Garrison pointed out. "We received tremendous community input saying it's not important to build a new middle school," Garrison said.

Memorial's enrollment, pegged at 302 in the 2004-05 school year, is now at 265 students for 2005-06, according to school board member Mark Van Wagner. Part of the drop in enrollment at both Memorial and Vetter School, the K-6 building where most children of military personnel stationed at the fort attend classes, can be attributed to those families moving away, Hoover said.

Vetter saw its student body decrease by 37 students this school year, going from 302 in 2004-05 to 265 in the current year, she noted. Altogether, the district anticipates losing about 200 students from Fort Monmouth upon its shutdown by the Pentagon in September 2011, district officials have said.

Though new building in the borough could offset that loss, the board would prefer not to depend on pending development to generate schoolchildren, said Fred Naimoli, another board member. "We hedged against overbuilding [the schools] right now," Naimoli said.

Under Garrison's plan, the only new construction at Memorial will be the addition of a new instructional media center to replace the existing undersized library. "It will meet the state model for a library," Garrison said.

The library, in turn, will be converted into a 1,200-square-foot computer laboratory, contiguous to the media center, plans show.

Much of the referendum focuses upon taking Memorial, originally built in 1955 as an elementary school, and remaking it into an up-to-date, functional middle school.

By removing the protruding temporary lockers set up in the halls and installing lockers recessed into the walls, Garrison believes the present problem of students colliding with one another in corridors and dodging open locker doors during change of classes can be eliminated.

Proposed renovations at Memorial also include upgrading the school's gymnasium and locker rooms and physical education offices; division of existing large classrooms into seven small group instruction rooms; and upgrades to the art and music rooms and the guidance area, Garrison's plans show.

Two new science labs will be constructed from existing spaces to allow for more hands-on instruction of biology and chemistry and for storage of chemicals and equipment, Garrison explained.

The district's three elementary schools - Vetter, Woodmere and Meadowbrook - which will continue to house kindergartners through sixth-graders, would see renovations as well if the referendum goes through.

Vetter, adjacent to Memorial on Grant Avenue and also 50 years old, would see upgrades to its computer labs, library, administrative offices, rest rooms and its art and physical education offices.

Water-stained ceiling tiles in the nurse's office will be removed and replaced, and new lighting will be installed, Garrison said.

The 39-year-old Woodmere School would undergo renovations to its special education offices, guidance area and student restrooms, the architectural plans show.

Meadowbrook School, constructed in 1963 on Wyckoff Road near Eatontown Boulevard, is slated for renovations to its restrooms and its art room, Garrison's plans show.

The three elementary schools would see the addition of an electrical room, and Woodmere would also receive a new storage room and expanded boiler room.

The infrastructure improvements listed by Garrison for all four schools include replacing exterior doors, windows, interior flooring, classroom ceilings, and kitchen equipment as well as upgrades to exterior and emergency lighting, corridor glass and the telecommunications and clock systems.

The roofing at all four buildings will be replaced as well.

The breakdown of taxpayer costs based on property values has not been determined pending the release of new tax figures under the borough's latest revaluation, according to Ronald J. Ianoale, bond counsel for the architect..

Those figures should be available later this month, Ianoale said.

Presently, the school tax rate is $1.09 per $100 of assessed valuation. The owner of a property assessed at the borough average of $150,000 pays $1,595 annually in school taxes.

If approved, building would begin in the summer of 2006 with completion of all projects by September 2007, Garrison said.

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