A $6 million bond to acquire and renovate a special needs school in
Cumberland County was unanimously adopted by the freeholders, seeking
to bridge the learning gap for area students with disabilities. The
20-year bond, to be repaid by the Salem County Special Services District,
will go toward creating an ideal educational environment for students
at what used to be the Fairfield primary school, located at 13 Ramah
Road in Fairfield Township. Design is by Garrison Architects of Mt.
Superintendent Loren Thomas explained that there is a greater need than
ever for more classroom space, and an influx of students on the horizon.
Figures from the Salem County Office of the Disabled show approximately
55 residents' needs are unmet by current programs. "We are going
to make it a first-class place that handicapped students and their parents
are proud of," Thomas said.
There are presently 17 students at the school from Salem and Cumberland
counties, Thomas said, with room to expand to 70. Though in terms of
large-scale growth, he remarked "I hope we never get there."
The Special Services
School District has asked for $500,000 to buy the property, another
$4 million for renovations and $1.5 million to make other changes specifically
geared toward making life easier for kids with disabilities particularly
County Administrator Earl Gage said there are various sources of income
which will repay the bond the county has made, including funds from
the state and Cumberland County.
"The Special Services School District is paying all costs,"
Gage said. "The district is receiving lease payments for the building
and programs from Cumberland County in a shared services agreement.
These payments will go toward the bond payments. I also believe that
the district is receiving a state grant for some of the costs, again
which will be used for the bond."
Cumberland County is currently providing $1.4 million over seven years
for rehabilitation. Annual tuition from home districts is now about
$30,000 per year. In addition, 55 percent of the construction costs
could be paid for by state aid.
Thomas said the money will go toward bringing the building up to code,
adding a sensory garden and music therapy. Plans are to install new
windows, bathrooms in the classes and non-ballasted, noiseless lights
to prevent distraction.
"Kids with autism, one thing we know based on research that works,
would be rooms that are sensory oriented," according to Thomas.
"Lights, colors, sounds these are things that need to be controlled
in the environment of an autistic child."
Statistics show an alarmingly high autism rate in Salem County compared
to the rest of the state and nation. According to figures, 1 out of
155 children in the U.S. fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum disorder.
In New Jersey, that number is 1 out of 94, and in Salem County, it is
found to be as high as 1 out of every 76 children.
Thomas said the school will be nearing that gold standard in special
service education, a sentiment agreed upon by county Freeholder Deputy
Director David Lindenmuth and the freeholder board.
"Any time we can improve the lives of our young people it is paramount,"
Lindenmuth said. "Specials Services does a great job providing
opportunities for them."