Salem County Special needs: $6 million
Article published Tuesday, February 19, 2008

SALEM -- The new leader of the Salem County Special Services School District presented a new plan to freeholders for acquiring a former Fairfield Township school, a mission that has been slowed for months by the inertia of high costs.

In one of his first major moves since becoming superintendent in December, Loren Thomas asked freeholders for $6 million to purchase and make major renovations to what was once the Fairfield primary school, located along Ramah Road in Cumberland County.

The Special Services District, serving students with learning disabilities and behavioral problems, began to occupy the school in 2006 with four classes of students from Salem and Cumberland counties.

Tuition to attend the school is roughly $50,000 per student, money which would eventually go toward paying back the bond if need be.

"We need a government agency to bond for us. We don't have a tax base, so we can't bond like a regular school (district)," said Thomas, who has 13 years of experience in alternative education.

"It's not like they are just giving us the money, though we can pay it back over time ... freeholders would just be the mechanism of the bond."

According to Thomas, 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, Thomas said.

And facilities such as Bankbridge, in Gloucester County -- a state-of-the-art school that is considered the gold standard in education for the disabled, is officially closed to out-of-county applications.

However, the $6 million amount Thomas asked for from the freeholders was actually higher than an amount that stalled talks last August.

At that time, freeholders were led to believe they could purchase the school for $1.

In order to do that, though, the county would have had to enter a 10-year lease agreement for $348,000, and an estimated $1.8 million would be needed to bring the building up to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) code. With that knowledge, freeholders backed out of the deal feeling misinformed.

Thomas has asked for $500,000 to buy it now, another $4 million for renovations and $1.5 million to make other changes specifically geared toward making life easier for kids with disabilities -- particularly autism. Garrison Architects of Mt. Laurel is currently preparing plans and refining cost estimates for the necessary improvements.

Cumberland County is currently providing $1.4 million over seven years for rehabilitation.

In addition, 55 percent of the construction costs could be paid for by state aid. Yet "A" must come before "B," Thomas explained.

"We can't do anything to it until we own it. The first thing we want do is obtain the building clearly, and then we need to do some changes," Thomas said. "Kids with autism, one thing we know based on research that works, would be rooms that are sensory oriented. Lights, colors, sounds -- these are things that need to be controlled in the environment of an autistic child. There are really interesting things you can see about how kids can touch and feel and learn different."

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. In Salem County, it is found to be as high as 1 out of every 76 children.

Officials remained uncertain if this is a bond they will be making.

"We have to let our bond council review it," Freeholder Director Lee Ware said Monday, "though we are supportive of their needs, and we understand that this is an issue in Salem County."

Local parent Daryl Halter, who has a 17-year-old daughter with disabilities, said that it is a need which must be met, and the longer the government waits, the more costly it becomes.

"If not now, when?" Halter asked. "Three years from now, what's it really going to cost then?"

Halter said that while sitting on the Salem County Special Services board for 10 years, nothing he had ever done directly benefited his child, because she was out of the county Special Services District.

Shipping kids out of the district is a transportation burden that costs about another $30,000 per year, beyond tuition, he said, and prices are rising right along with the cost of fuel.

"We have to look beyond what it costs us right now. The need is there," Halter said. "The reality is, what will be the cost if there is no action taken?"


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