New school a necessity, U.F. board president says

Staff Writer

New school a necessity, U.F. board president says


Staff Writer

UPPER FREEHOLD — School officials here want to make sure residents will be able to make an informed decision when they vote on a $35 million building referendum in September.

An exit poll conducted last year by Millstone Township school officials after the Millstone referendum went down showed that residents felt they had not been given enough information, Board of Education President Jeannette Bressi said at the Feb. 25 board meeting.

"Hit us with the tough questions," Bressi said. "We want to make sure we make the right decision for the children of the community."

At the meeting, school officials unveiled the design for a proposed new school.

Additional meetings will be held on the issue before a public referendum in September.

Superintendent Robert Connelly said the need for a new school was driven by demographics.

Demographer Stanley Slatcheka of T&M Associates predicted five years ago, based on the number of new housing starts in the community, that enrollment in 2004-05 would be 2,107 students.

One year earlier, the number of students is 2,017, Slatcheka said.

A demographic update released in January showed that there are currently 1,077 students in the elementary/middle school, which has a capacity of 850 students.

Allentown High School (AHS), which underwent a recent expansion, has 941 students.

But by the 2008-09 school year, those numbers will jump to 1,570 students in the elementary and middle school and 1,299 at AHS.

If the September referendum is not approved, in two years the board will have to install trailers in the elementary/middle school to accommodate the growing population, Bressi said.

The school board cannot meet its commitment to excellence in education without a new school, she added.

"We have a vision for excellence in education," Bressi continued. "The facilities should not drive the vision for excellence. The vision for excellence should drive the facilities."

The board decided on the second of three options — to build a new school for grades five through eight and have the current school house prekindergarten through grade four.

Connelly said that the board’s decision meant building a state-of-the-art middle school with proper athletic facilities.

Both the old and new schools would have capacity for future growth, Connelly said.

Tony Pannella, the board’s financial attorney, said state funding for between 20 and 25 percent of the school’s cost is available now, but will most likely be tapped out by mid-October.

After that, residents will have to shoulder 100 percent of the costs, he said.

Interest rates are at historic lows, Pannella said.

The $35 million referendum would increase the school tax rate by roughly 13 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, he said.

Pannella said that Upper Freehold had a tax base of $441 million in 2001, $557 million in 2002, and $715 million last year.

"This was not the result of re-evaluation," he said. "This was a result of growth."

The land deal must be finalized within a month, Bressi said. At least 40 acres will be needed for the school site.

The board has looked at several properties, but has not decided on a site at this time, she said.

Allentown’s sewers were tapped out, and any land chosen must be suitable for a package sewage treatment site, Bressi said.

Environmental studies done on some prospective parcels were "not as positive as we [would have] liked," she said.

Sue Kozel, a Republican candidate for Township Committee in Upper Freehold, expressed concern about the package sewage treatment plant, which would be similar to the ones in operation at the Four Seasons and Heritage Green developments.

"You cannot do a package except in one or two sites in town, according to the master plan," she said.

"People in Upper Freehold fear sewers," said Kozel. "With septic vs. package treatment, there are zoning issues involved. There can be no infringement on water-quality issues."

Architect Ted Hopkins of Faridy Veisz Fraytak talked about both his design for the new building and changes to the current school.

"The Board of Education must thread the needle so they don’t overbuild or underbuild," he said.

While his design is still subject to modification, the new school would feature an auditorium, gymnasium and cafeteria, which could all be accessed from the lobby space, making it readily available as a community building.

The current 80-year-old school will have a general office area and a new lobby added.

"It will house everybody we need and have some elbow room," he said.

Architect David Fraytak said it would take a year to go through the approval process, which includes securing a permit for an onsite sewage treatment plant. He estimated the entire process would take about three years.

Reno Zinzarella, a Four Seasons resident who was superintendent of schools in Westwood, Bergen County, for 26 years, urged the passage of the referendum.

"The alternative, if the referendum is defeated, is chaos," Zinzarella said. "The kids are coming down the pike, and state money will be gone. Don’t miss the opportunity to get the money."