Board ponders next move in wake of plan’s defeat

Freehold Borough voters reject referendum for school improvements


Staff Writer

to go out for this referendum and end up failing three times, but he said the board will probably decide to do that.

“Unfortunately, the people have not heard our message,” he said. “I understand where they are coming from. I understand the plight of seniors on a fixed income. I understand the issue of residents with no children in the school. What I cannot understand is the fact that parents with children in our schools voted no for this referendum.”

Based on the numbers he saw, DeFonzo said he believes many parents voted against the construction project.

“We have worked so hard not to spend a lot of money. It is so difficult for me to understand how [parents with children in school] could vote against it,” he said.

DeFonzo said board members and members of the Facilities Usage Committee may modify the construction plan. Since the construction project that just failed was what he called a “bare bones” plan based on no enrollment growth, DeFonzo said he did not see how much more could be cut from the proposal.

Although he knows the board can place the referendum before voters three times before referring it to the state, he would rather not have to do that.

“It creates bad feelings on the part of the people in the town” to have to do that, he said.

The functional capacity of the Freehold Learning Center is 460 pupils. Current enrollment is 537.

The Park Avenue Elementary School has a functional capacity of 389 pupils and a current enrollment of 439.

The Freehold Intermediate School, Park Avenue, has a functional capacity of 270 pupils and a current enrollment of 387 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

According to figures provided by the district, the $7.8 million referendum would have been paid over 20 years at an assumed interest rate of 5 percent, less a state grant of $1.2 million, leaving the local share of $6.6 million.

The average home in the borough is now assessed at $257,729. If the referendum was approved, the owner of a home assessed at $257,729 would have paid an additional $122 in K-8 school taxes per year ($10 per month) over the life of the bonds issued to pay for the work.FREEHOLD — Voters said no to a proposed $7.8 million school construction referendum in an election held Dec. 13. That means the borough’s K-8 school district will not see the major proposed improvements to its schools — at least not yet.

The referendum failed 349 to 191. Out of 5,046 registered voters in town, 540 cast ballots in the election.

Board of Education members will have to decide whether to place the same referendum before voters again or change the construction plan to try to get what they say children desperately need — more space.

The referendum proposed to renovate existing classrooms at the Park Avenue Elementary School/Freehold Intermediate School complex to eliminate all substandard areas and provide space for special education classes; renovate or construct a small building to serve as district offices; create 1,800 square feet of classroom space by renovating existing administrative offices; renovating locker rooms and replacing existing bleachers; and improving the site’s vehicular traffic access.

At the Freehold Learning Center elementary school, administrators proposed constructing three new classrooms; designing a new library/media center from the old cafetorium; constructing a 6,200-square-foot community center-gymnasium-cafetorium; and returning art classes to their original art room.

Without these additions and improvements to all three schools, administrators said class size will approach 30 pupils in each building and programs such as art and music may be left without space.

School officials undertook the project in order to make more room for the district’s 1,381 students. Enrollment has seen a 35 percent increase in the last five years and, according to Superintendent of Schools Philip J. Meara, “this will not go away.”

Meara said he was “certainly disappointed” at the outcome of the vote.

“We hear what the community is saying,” he said. “We knew from the beginning the financial impact this would create. That’s why we pared down the initial plan that was drawn up by our architects,” he said.

The referendum included a guaranteed $1.2 million state grant which the superintendent said the district might lose without the referendum.

“We will probably lose the opportunity to purchase the home on Park Avenue which was proposed as the new administration offices,” Meara said.

So what happens now?

Meara said he and the school board will explore options to get through the next couple of years. He said using trailers as supplemental classrooms is a possibility, but a slim one. School districts need to have a state approved construction plan in order to apply for temporary trailers. Although the district now has a plan approved by the state, administrators would still need to come up with the money it would take to operate the trailers (i.e, rental fees, utilities, concrete pads).

Meara said the board is considering different options, including making one elementary school grades K-3 and the other elementary school grades 4-5. That would eliminate the choice parents have now of choosing which K-5 elementary school to send their child to.

Meara said the decision to put a referendum before voters again will be up to the board. The same plan or a modified plan could be placed before the electorate. A district may go out for referendum and fail three times. After the third failure, the proposed project is directed to the state commissioner of education, who may approve it, according to Meara.

He said he believes the commissioner could rule in the board’s favor if a referendum fails three times.

The superintendent said that through the process of planning this referendum over the past three years, the board never lost sight of its two main goals — to do what is best for the children and to see what the community could afford financially.

School board President Peter DeFonzo echoed Meara’s disappointment.

“People did not come out to vote. The issues are still there and will not go away,” he added.

DeFonzo said he would rather not have