BY JANE MEGGITT
ALLENTOWN — Several members of the new “Yes” Committee came out to the school board meeting to show their support for the upcoming referendum.
Voters will decide Dec. 14 on a proposed $39 million building referendum for a new middle school on Ellisdale Road.
Upper Freehold resident and Yes member Jim Derasmo said at the Oct. 13 meeting that he “cringed” at the shots some residents have taken at the Board of Education in recent months regarding the proposed school. He said that the board had done its due diligence, and that it had answered residents’ questions honestly and impressively.
Several residents have come to board meetings to express concerns with the Ellisdale Road location, such as the possible traffic impact on the communities along that road.
Steven Gidarian, a resident of the age-restricted Four Seasons development, said many members of his community — several of whom moved to the township to be near grandchildren — do support the public school system.
Gidarian said he had been speaking to fellow residents in order to “determine the pulse of homeowners” and to find out what sort of questions they had about the school.
He noted that for retired people like himself, property values had been rising but pensions had not. He also urged the board to consider the traffic and safety issues on Ellisdale Road.
Gidarian reported that Applied Water Management, the operator of the package sewage treatment plant that the school would like to tap into, recently had to correct a problem that caused sewage to spill.
“We need to know you are doing an appropriate study of this facility,” he said.
The board is scheduled to make a presentation about the school at Gidarian’s community on Nov. 15.
Board President Jeanette Bressi assured Gidarian that the board will be well-prepared when it addresses Four Seasons residents.
“For the past 18 months, we’ve been doing exactly what you’re asking us to do,” she said. “We have already met with Applied Water.”
She said the board has also been in contact with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Office of Smart Growth and the Upper Freehold Township Committee, and had asked that egress from the school be provided at Route 539.
According to Bressi, however, the board’s fiscal and legal responsibility ends with building the school. She hoped that the state and township will work on behalf of the school to address traffic issues.
Richard Messner, another Four Seasons resident, asked whether a traffic survey had been done.
Schools Superintendent Robert Connelly said that such a survey had not been done on the school, although surveys had been done regarding the westerly bypass.
Messner asked the board to come out publicly against the westerly bypass, as all four candidates for the Upper Freehold Township Committee race have done.
He said the issue would be decided in a democratic process by the governing bodies.
“In terms of the westerly bypass, we don’t require it,” Connelly said. “If it’s there, it’s there. We don’t want to take a political stance outside our purview. The board’s only view is that it must be safe.”
Board member Robert Cheff reminded Messner that this was a regional school board. While Upper Freehold officials have condemned the bypass, Allentown officials have supported it.
“We would not be unanimous in any decision, and it is outside of our realm,” Cheff said. “We do not build roads — we educate children.”
Connelly said that a new school will need to open by September 2007. If not, he could guarantee there will be trailers. Some accommodations could be made before going to trailers — such as using the music, art and computer rooms as regular classrooms — but it would be very limited.
“It’s a reality, and it’s coming,” the superintendent said, referring to the estimated 850 new students who are expected to attend the schools next year.
Elementary and middle school Principal Miriam Peluso said the core facilities were already very strained.
The cafeteria already has five lunch sessions, and another one cannot be added. Due to scheduling and demand, fourth-graders can only use the media center 20 minutes a week.
Yes member Joan Kovacs is a resident and a teacher at the middle school.
“We have been so long overdue to meet the needs of the middle school-age child,” she said. “We’ve seen the academic and social impact of it. Those children are coming and there’s no stopping them.
“It’s not your responsibility to take care of traffic,” she continued. “I hope the school would not be put down because of traffic and water issues.”
Another resident said that he pays $14,000 a year in property taxes and did not move to Upper Freehold to put his kids in trailers.
Both Connelly and Bressi said that the cost of delaying a school would be higher. They pointed to neighboring Millstone, which had a failed middle school referendum last year before a second one passed this April.
Because of rising construction costs, almost $4 million had to be cut from the design, so taxpayers are paying the same amount of money but getting less of a building than they originally approved.
Right now, the Upper Freehold school district could expect to receive $6.4 million in state money for school construction costs. The state money, Connelly said, is quickly dwindling.
“If we delay, the building will still need to be built, but the state money will be gone,” he said.
Bressi thanked members of the Yes Committee.
“There’s been so much press against the school,” she said. “We’ve been told the silent majority supports it. [But] the silent majority is silent no more. We have the Yes Committee.”