Whether the Borough’s residents voted for or against the Board’s referendum, no one can deny that the overcrowding has been and remains an issue which requires an acceptable solution. The conflict arises as to whether the solution should cost the Freehold Borough taxpayers close to $33 million.
A recent newspaper article read that 36 Borough pupils have been honored for earning a perfect score of 300 on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge testing. Despite the lack of proper classroom space, the teachers and students have managed to overcome and excel, which should be commended. The dedication of the staff and the willingness of the students to learn is, in fact, the true essence of an education. No matter where the lesson is held, whether in a classroom, a gymnasium, in the corridor or under a tree in the courtyard, the core of education is in the connection made between the teacher and his pupil, not the venue.
A review of the schematic plan for the Freehold Learning Center indicates the construction of 13 pre-k and kindergarten classrooms totaling 9900 square feet. The preliminary estimate for this construction is $10,633,300.
Currently on the market is a former day care facility, located at 315 W Main Street (Route 537) featuring 8,968 square feet. It is a single story building, with all of the amenities, meeting code requirements, not to mention ready for occupancy. The asking price is $3.25 million. Would it not be worthwhile for the Board to consider the purchase of this facility for pre-K and kindergarten classes? If so, the Borough would benefit from a savings of over $7 Million. Although, the facility is located in the Township, perhaps we may propose an agreement wherein the Township would purchase the building, with the understanding that the Borough would reimburse the Township with a purchase or lease agreement for exclusive use of the premises.
The greater portion of the proposed construction plan and the preliminary estimate for the Park Avenue Elementary/Freehold Intermediate School is $22,091,500. A review of the schematic plan features the addition of only four new classrooms, while the remainder of the plan sites major renovations of five existing classrooms, a table storage room, a tech room, and the Nurse’s suite. An even greater concern is the need for an additional cafeteria and an additional gymnasium. When there is a need for additional classroom space, it is not cost effective to spend money on the creation of an additional gymnasium which requires special flooring, a vaulted ceiling, bleachers and locker rooms, if there is a good chance it could be used as a classroom anyway. The same rationale pertains to the additional cafeteria space. With this plan’s proposed cost of construction with renovation work at $469 per square foot, it would be more cost effective to just build the additional classrooms and eliminate the additional cafeteria and gymnasium.
We ask that the Board not make the same mistake as it did in 2005 with the $7.8 Million referendum. With overcrowding an issue at that time, the majority of the funds were allotted to amenities, rather than to the construction of new classrooms. And today, we are faced with a bill for 4 times the amount, again with the majority of funds being allotted to amenities. As for the low interest rate, it is irrelevant, as it does not justify the enormous loan amount. (You would not take out a $1M mortgage on your home because the rates are low to upgrade your kitchen.) It would be more feasible to reduce the expense, and allot the State funding to what is most needed.
Even more disturbing to the Borough resident is the affect this expense will have on the resident taxpayer. School taxes together with the property tax rate, were already raised according to the 2014/2015 preliminary tax bill. And that is non inclusive of the projected increase of an average of $300 per year for each of the next three years of construction; totaling a minimum of $900 per year increase thereafter.
Although it is understood that the State will absorb 38% of the debt, we are 2% shy of being eligible for Abbott consideration. The Borough meets a majority of the requirements, which include high density population, and low-income concentration. And according to Designation of Abbott Districts Criteria and Process, by the Commissioner of Education, Dr. William L. Librera… “districts that meet the Abbott criteria, but have not been designated as such, will be phased in…over time. The first year will be a planning year in which the district will receive the funds necessary to undertake a comprehensive needs assessment and develop a three-year operational plan for each school and for the central office. The first three-year operational plans should focus on two specific programs– high quality preschool and intensive early literacy. …” Thus, the Board may be preparing the Borough for Abbott consideration with the proposed construction of 13 classrooms designated for pre-K and kindergarten instruction at the Freehold Learning Center.
It seems that the Board has not been totally clear in its intentions with the public. The residents are led to believe that by placing more money into the system, the schools will receive a higher rating and attract more middle class families into the community. But the fact is, that with higher property taxes in a depreciating market, the only residents the town will attract are more renters. To date, most of the homes on the market in the Borough are listed at an average of $50,000 less than assessed value, 20% of which are rented. And three to five years from now when the resident taxpayer can no longer support the expense, the Board will be forced to apply for Abbott consideration.
The future of this town will be affected in many ways by the outcome of this referendum. Any threat of demise can be alleviated with the simple concept of “spending within one’s means”. The Borough’s tax levy for the last year totaled $9.46 Million, half of which is allotted to school and regional taxes.
As I mentioned earlier, no one can deny that the overcrowding is an issue and must be addressed; all we ask is that the Board present a more cost effective approach.
Although the State’s Constitution assures that all students who reside in the Borough be entitled to a thorough and efficient education, it also recognizes civic responsibility to present a fair and reasonable solution to the taxpayers that support and maintain that very institution.