DERMA - Lower Cape May Regional School District voters will decide Jan. 25, 2022, on a $13.9 million bond referendum to replace the roof at the middle school and replace and upgrade the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems at the middle and high schools.
There will be no increase in school taxes, as recent federal Covid relief funds will be applied, as well as funding from the state, at 40%. The local share is 60%, or $8.3 million.
The Board of Education June 24 voted to submit the project to the state Department of Education for approval as designed by Garrison Architects of Bellmawr.
Superintendent Joseph Castellucci explained that among the lessons learned during the pandemic was the “importance of having modern, up-to-date ventilation and climate control in our schools.
“Anyone who has been in our schools during the late spring or early fall months understands how hot, humid and uncomfortable many of our non-air-conditioned classrooms can be,” he said. “Given the age of our schools, most of our classrooms lack proper air conditioning, which can have detrimental effects on the health of the students and staff inhabiting those rooms each day.”
The original Richard M. Teitelman Middle School was built in 1974, with a two-story addition built in 1995. Lower Cape May Regional High School was originally built in 1960, with additions in 1967 and 1988, the addition of the science wing in 1995, and the addition of the auditorium in 2000.
The vote’s timing is tied to the debt service the district has, which is expiring, Castellucci said.
“When it expires, we need to renew it and can do so without additional taxes,” he said. “The only way the state will help fund school projects today is via debt service aid. Districts must incur debt or borrow money to get money from the state. Projects funded through the annual school budget are not eligible for state aid.
“The state will not allow school districts to carry over significant money to replace building systems from year to year and has capped the school budget increases, so districts cannot easily replace building systems within their annual budgets,” he added. “The state, because of its funding formula, provides more money to districts that renovate existing facilities versus new construction.”
In addition, Castellucci said new construction is “penalized by a low, state-mandated construction dollar value of $143 per square foot. Actual current new construction cost varies significantly from region to region, but is between $300-$350 per square foot. The state only pays a maximum of 40% of eligible costs based on the $143 per square foot new construction value.
“Renovation costs are not penalized and can reflect the current market values,” he added. “The state pays 40% of eligible costs based on the architect’s construction estimate for all renovations.”
Although the district has been losing student enrollment over the last 10 years, from a high of 1,544 in 2012-2013, to a projected 1,249 for the 2021-2022 school year, Castellucci said, “We still have students enrolled here, so we have to maintain our buildings. We are not building new facilities or adding to them.”
Along with the student enrollment decline, state aid of nearly $7 million has been cut from the district.
“The state aid cuts have been spread out over seven years, with the coming school year being the fourth year on the schedule,” the superintendent said. “Our district is preparing for a $1.5 million cut for next year’s budget.”
In preparation for the financial reductions, Castellucci said “staff has been significantly reduced over the past six years through attrition, and we have made creative adjustments to our school schedules and curriculum to maintain, and even develop, new, effective and dynamic programs for our students. We have also carefully budgeted any savings from reductions in the workforce to maintain and improve our district facilities with renovation and building projects.”
If the referendum passes, work would likely start in 2023.
Voters may request an absentee ballot from the Cape May County Clerk’s Office if they are not already on the list to receive absentee ballots. Those on the absentee ballot list will automatically receive their ballot before the vote, according to the county’s election clerk.