Upper Township school officials discuss $15.9M referendum
Tuesday, 10 January 2012 16:23
Ann Richardson , Atlantic City Press

Two questions will be up for vote Jan. 24

PETERSBURG - Upper Township voters will be asked to go to the polls on Jan. 24 and vote up or down on two questions concerning a $15.9 million plan to renovate the school district's primary and middle schools.

On Monday night, the school board hosted an informational public meeting to address the proposed plan, which offers voters a choice. A committee comprised of school district officials and community members went through the plan that voters resoundingly turned down last April, removing about $2 million from the original referendum.

Voters will be asked to approve $12.5 million for the first question to make the most pressing repairs - those affecting the health and safety of the students - and $3.3 million in repairs for the second question, which school officials deemed less pressing.

The state is funding 40 percent of the work, so the local share would be $9.5 million. The state is offering a total of $6.4 million, which school district officials noted will disappear if voters do not support the referendum. The funding, with an 18-month shelf life, expires in February.

The local share for the first question would come to $7.5 million. The local share for the second question would be $2.03 million.

Voters can approve both the first and second questions or the first but not the second or turn down both questions. Superintendent Vincent Palmieri said he hopes voters will support at least the first question.

Noting that voters declined to support the referendum in the past, Palmieri said the revised plan was more palatable.

"As you know we were unsuccessful with the referendum but the needs are still there," he said.

Supporting question one would cost the owner of the average $340,000 home $85 per year; if question two passes it would add an additional $24.

Architect Bob Garrison, Jr. said this was the last chance for voters to support the plan.

Garrison offered three selling points supporting the plan: the state picking up 40 percent of the cost, record low interest rates on bonds - under four percent - and the ability to obtain competitive bids since so few construction projects are in the wings.

The district's buildings and grounds committee had gone through the plan with a fine tooth comb, he said, and what voters would be asked to approve was absolutely necessary.

"There were a lot of brilliant minds on the task force," Garrison said of the contractors, retired attorneys and others who volunteered their time, climbing roofs and investigating every inch of both facilities. "Health and safety was a priority. Time is running out, that's what puts us here this evening."

Garrison said it was important to preserve the "envelope" of the schools, so priority was given to roofing and entrances for safety purposes.

The large audience gathered in the middle school cafeteria listened patiently as Palmieri and Garrison discussed the plan. Russ Morano, a member of the committee charged with devising a revised plan, said he took umbrage with comments that those who might not support the plan "hated kids."

"It belongs in the hands of the people," he said. "Don't ever think a taxpayer doesn't care."

Morano said it came down to what people could afford. He said he put three children through college and drove cars with over 200,000 miles.

"Tolls are up," he said. The cost of everything is escalating, he said. Back in the day, children learned with a blackboard and chalk, now they need ever-changing technology, like smart boards to keep pace, said Morano.

"I don't like to see money wasted," he said.

The referendum was a lot of money, but with the state contributing 40 percent Morano said he was torn about supporting it.

"If this thing does fail, all is not lost, really," he said, adding that he had climbed the roof and spent hours working on the details of each building. Structurally the buildings are sound, he said. "If you can afford it vote yes. If not, vote no."

Resident Ray Zaner questioned why it cost so much to renovate a school when private homes built by local contractors cost so much less per square foot. He said the school district should turn their backs on state funding and build the school themselves using local workers.

Palmieri and Garrison said state laws preclude them from doing so. State Statute 18: A, Garrison said, stipulates that school districts must pay prevailing wages.

"That doesn't help the local plumbing contractor," said Garrison.

Plans are put out to public bid, he said. Anyone can bid, he said, but state laws complicate the process.

"I would love to put local people to work," he said. "But we can't spend the money unless we follow 18: A rules."

Electricians, he noted, are paid $87 per hour. Palmeiri said the district would lose $12.5 million in state aid if they did not comply with rules.

Zaner noted that the project gets "blown apart" every time it goes to the voters.

Resident Terry O'Reilly said he thinks "we do have to fix our schools," but he too is concerned about the economy.

"I have a job now I don't know I'll have in five years," he said. Taxes, he noted, continue to go up. He said he didn't want to lose the 40 percent state aid.

Resident Joe Costal, the father of four children, said he did not have the money to spare, but he felt the community owed it to the children to support the referendum.

"We're not talking about programs that go above and beyond, we are talking about severely asthmatic children being able to walk in a building with confidence," he said, of the need for structural integrity and satisfactory air quality.

"You hear Mr. Garrison talk about peril," he said. "As a father, I'm anti-peril. It's becoming popular to say no to these types of things, it's an issue of finance."

It was not an issue of "can we afford it?" rather it's an issue of "can we afford not to do this for our children?" said Costal.

He implored the public to support the plan.

"If it sounds like an emotional plea, it is," he said. "Resist the temptation to make this political. A vote of yes sends the message that the voters do care enough to do this for our children. I personally believe that we have a responsibility to take care of each other and be good neighbors, be good citizens. To pull that off we need a resounding yes."

O'Reilly said it was hard to hear "peril" come from a professional who stands to profit from the repairs. A lot of township residents are suffering because of cutbacks at the casinos, he said. He worries about a different kind of peril.

Zane said the peril was not air quality.

"I can't believe we survived all these years breathing this air," he said. "I see people getting laid off daily."

Everyone wants to make sure that the township's children receive a good education, he said.

"But I don't think we're at the bottom of what's happening" with the economy, said Zane.

Palmeiri said it was his job to "worry about what is best for kids."

O'Reilly asked board member Steve Martinelli, who led the buildings and grounds committee, where he stood on the project.

"I feel good about it," he said, adding that he had many concerns when he ran for the board last year as the referendum failed. Months of research and hard work revealed a district in need of a lot of repairs and renovations, he said.

"I'm the cheapest guy around and I don't trust anyone," he said. The committee, he noted, went line by line through all the costs.

The aging elementary school remains an issue. At a board meeting last fall, board members discussed the possibility of adding on to the primary school, thus eliminating the need for the deteriorating building as both primary and elementary school students could be housed in an enlarged primary school. The district would save money utilizing one building, they noted.

Regardless of whether the board considers this option down the road, renovations would be needed at the primary school.

The Jan. 24 referendum does not address problems at the elementary school. School officials are still waiting on word from the state concerning possible funding for a new $21 million elementary school plan, but Palmieri said the plan to consolidate the primary and elementary schools would be discussed at a meeting in the near future.


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