Gloucester County districts find bond vote not lost cause

Sunday, May 09, 2010
By DJ McAneny
Gloucester County Times

CLAYTON - The school district here will break ground on a brand new expansion to the middle school and high school complex, on Wednesday, to a design by Garrison Architects of Marlton. The district was granted a bond referendum approval by the community in September and, with the addition of three Regular Operating District (ROD) grants, the cost to the community was cut in half.

"We're very excited about getting this project under way," said Clayton Superintendent Cleve Bryan. "Not only is this going to meet the educational needs of our students come September with a better separation of the high school kids and the middle school students in preparation for our sixth-graders to be coming over, but it will give a whole different feel to our students and, I think, be a new source of pride for our community."

With a total cost of approximately $20 million, the district squeezed the project in during a particularly difficult economic climate. School budgets were voted down en masse this past April 20, so the district may be lucky it got the referendum when it did.

Two other school districts in Gloucester County, East Greenwich and Kingsway Regional, are also considering referendum projects to deal with enrollment growth.

But Bryan says it was dedication and hard work, not luck, that passed the referendum. He believes the biggest aid in turning the planned expansion into reality was a strong dialogue with the community.

"We were able to go ahead with this project because of the bond referendum and three ROD grants coming under the School Development Authority," Bryan said. "I don't think it's just luck (that we passed the referendum) because we had a committee working diligently, keeping the community informed why we were doing things, how we'd like to do things, what we needed to do it."

Bryan also stated that, after campaigning to the taxpayers for this need, turnout was strong on that vote, with between 800 to 900 voters coming out to cast their ballots last fall, a considerable number compared to the average turnout of approximately 500 voters.

East Greenwich School District is considering a $25 million project that would expand both Jeffrey Clark and Samuel Mickle schools, also by Garrison Architects, adding classroom space. It hoped to receive about $7 million in an operating grant, but an additional $18 million would need to come from a local bond referendum.

"We'll be running out of space for students really soon," said Business Administrator Valerie Carmody in late March. "So, we are hopeful and encouraged by the participation from the community that they would embrace this for their children."

Kingsway Regional administrators see a growing student population and fewer places to put them. Even if the district receives state approval for a conceptual plan for change, it still needs to take the plan to the voters for a bond referendum. At the middle school, in the face of a maximum capacity of 800, the school is already housing 721 students. The high school is accommodating more than 1,500 students in a building with a capacity of 1,493.

"This is the reality," School Board President Mark Kehoe said in February. "The kids are already in the pipeline, and we have a plan by Garrison Architects that'll allow us to build on site and buy some time until more difficult decisions about building new facilities must be made."

Clayton residents apparently saw the need for their students and supported them by opening up their wallets.

Bryan knows the community cares, though, and since he wanted to give the community as much bang for their buck as he could, he went on the hunt for deals and found some.

"I think everybody realized our need, and we had a really strong backing from the town council," Bryan said. "We also got a very good bonding rate, which lessens the impact when paying off the bond over the next 25 years. And when we went out for bids, we got a very good price, allowing us to address some issues we didn't think we were going to be able to do. It was a better value for our money."

But Bryan also understands that, with the failure of so many school budgets recently, timing may have been everything.

"The timing was very important, as well," he explained. In September, when the referendum was held, "We didn't have the hostile environment in Trenton towards public education."

According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, April 20 set a new low for the number of questions asking voters for bonding referendums as well as "second questions" seeking funds above the cap. Only six of the 538 districts asked second questions this year, when the average ranged between 60 and 80 districts as recently as three years ago. Only seven districts presented bond referendums.

"With bond referendums, there are still projects being approved by voters," said NJSBA spokesman Frank Belluscio. "Most proposals you'll see reflect some state grant. There is a state grant program to help, designed to alleviate some of the cost of school construction costs. On average, it can cover 40 percent of the cost."

Belluscio echoed Bryan's sentiment that having a referendum passed by voters has less to do with the economy and more to do with the visibility of a school's necessity.

"Property taxes are a problem in the state, and many voters are not in a spending mood," Belluscio said. "But if they can convince the public that the students need the construction for improved safety, I think you'll see the referendums passing."

Clayton's groundbreaking for the new expansion will take place at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday on Pop Kramer Boulevard, behind the school.


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