Fifteen New Jersey school districts are asking voters today to approve more than $320 million in school construction and renovation projects that range from fixing ceilings that are raining tiles and debris to realigning schools to upgrading and enhancing facilities to make them among the best in the state.
Most commonly, the proposals seek to expand buildings, renovate classes, provide new technology, upgrade security, and make needed health and safety repairs.
Two of the referenda, in Hamilton in Mercer County and Middlesex Borough, seek to spend more than $50 million each. The questions in the Middlesex vote and three other districts across the state give voters a choice among multiple options, so if they think the overall project is too expensive they can approve parts of it. All the multipart questions require voters to approve at least the first, most expensive, proposal for any of the other parts to also move forward.
Scheduling a referendum
Today is one of five dates this year on which districts can schedule a referendum. Polls must be open between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., although districts can expand those hours and open polling places as early as 6 a.m.
Most of the work proposed is eligible for a state match of at least 40 percent of the costs through the state Schools Development Authority. In order for a project to be eligible, it must address health and safety issues, overcrowding, in-district special education, or full-day kindergarten in districts required to provide full-day preschool.
The SDA manages and fully funds projects in the Abbott districts and also provides grants — in the form of annual debt service aid — to the remainder of the state’s districts. The program began in 2000 as the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act, which was revamped and placed under SDA control in 2007 and given additional funding a year later. The state Economic Development Authority floats bonds to fund the SDA.
As of December 1, the SDA had approved grants to 524 school districts. The districts have undertaken $8.9 billion in projects, with the state’s share being $3 billion. The referenda on today’s ballot seek to spend $321.3 million, with an estimated $93.4 million of that coming from the state in the form of debt service aid.
The largest proposal is in Hamilton, which is asking voters to approve $55.4 million, with $22.1 million of that paid by the state, to fund construction to address health, safety, and building code issues; security system upgrades; and other improvements at 24 school districts. A presentation on the project shows pictures of fallen ceiling tiles and a rusted and broken waste water pipe. The largest expense would cover window and door replacements, at $20.2 million. It puts the tax impact on the average home, assessed at $214,300, at $52.30 a year.
“Prudent facility management has stretched building systems beyond their expected life spans and have (sic) resulted in aged and deteriorating conditions,” states another presentation on the project. “The plan for undertaking these safety, security and high priority infrastructure improvements has been considered carefully to minimize costs — reducing improvements to only the most critical.”
Hamilton is one of the districts with expanded voting hours, with polls open from 2 p.m. to 8 pm.
Middlesex Borough, with a total of $50.1 million in projects on the ballot, will also open polls between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. With the tax impact on the average home, assessed at $93,000, estimated at $465 a year, the district is putting three separate questions on the ballot so voters who might consider the full project too pricey can choose one or two options, although the first, and most expensive proposal must pass in order for either or both of the others to go through.
Termed Building for Our Future, the main purpose of the question is to realign the district’s K-8 schools, including the closure of one. The main proposal would spend $31.6 million, including $5.5 million from the state, to expand, realign, and renovate the Watchung Elementary School, including the addition of air conditioning throughout the building, and to make the Von E. Mauger Middle School a true middle school, with just grades 6-8, moving grades 4 and 5 to Watchung. The second question would spend $11 million, including $1.3 million from the state, to renovate and expand Hazelwood Elementary School for grades PK-1 and closing Parker Elementary School. The third would renovate and upgrade high school classrooms, labs, athletic spaces, the cafeteria, and other facilities for $8 million, with $3.2 million from the state.
Holmdel has put forth a $40.3 million proposal, called Holmdel 2020, to build additions at the middle and high schools, and fund improvements at the other schools. It would be eligible for $9.5 million in state aid. The owner of the average home, assessed at $657,288, would pay $159 a year more in taxes to cover the costs.
“The greatest need and therefore the greatest focus of this community project is the creation of a state-of-the art 7th-12th Grade facility that will support the transformation of the adolescents who enter it as 7th graders into future-ready young adults,” states the district’s webpage devoted to the project. “It is critical for the district to implement the proposed enhancements in order to maintain its status as one of the very best school districts in the state and the country. The Holmdel School District receives very little state aid to address its many infrastructure needs, and must rely upon the referendum process to provide the academic, athletic, and arts spaces that will ensure that our schools and community remain competitive.”
These are the other projects up for a vote: