SPRINGFIELD: Voters reject measure for new gym, solar panels

By Vanessa S. Holt, Managing Editor
    SPRINGFIELD — Voters rejected a $9 million referendum Tuesday by a vote of 332-284 that would have renovated the 70-year-old elementary school, built a new gym and installed solar panels to help pay for the cost of construction.
    The plan was a scaled-down version of an earlier referendum that was defeated in December 2009.
    Superintendent Beth Godett said Wednesday that she felt “tremendous disappointment” at the defeat but appreciated the work the district had done to inform the public about the proposal.
    “A lot of people worked really hard to get the word out about how important the planned renovations were,” she said.
    That included community information sessions in which the district gathered opinions and detailed what the referendum would entail.
    The school board will decide what the next step is and whether the district will try to find another way to fund the needed renovations.
    Dr. Godett did not speculate on what the board’s decision would be nor on what may have led the public to turn down the proposal.
    “It’s difficult to say in these economic times,” she said, adding the referendum proposal was a very conservative tax impact.
    The tax rate would have been about 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed home value, leading to a tax bill of $72.32 for the owner of a house valued at the township average of $320,000, according to Business Administrator Dan Saragnese.
    Officials had said residents at public forums held between the proposals voiced concerns the first plan was too optimistic in how much it would earn from the sale of Solar Renewable Energy Credits or SRECs.
    As in the 2009 proposal, the rejected proposal included a gymnasium that meets the state mandate of 22 feet high and the installation of solar panels. The current gym height is just 14 feet, and the district has said the facility, which is carpeted, has poor air circulation.
    Under the rejected plan, the school’s old gym would have been converted to a cafeteria and kitchen to deal with overcrowding in the lunchroom.
    The former cafeteria would have been renovated into a modern library and media center with new equipment, furniture, books and a computer lab while the old library could have become a science demonstration room.
    The plan rejected Tuesday called for 7,300 square feet of new construction, nearly 3,000 square feet less than the original plan. The savings comes from eliminating storage and physical education office spaces, bathrooms, a corridor and the earlier proposal to expand the music classroom.
    Overall, the project would have cost about $9.39 million, about $1.7 million less than the earlier referendum, and state debt service aid would have covered 37.68 percent of the total cost. Business Administrator Dan Saragnese said the cost would not have hit taxpayers until 2011, just as with the old referendum.
    Mr. Saragnese said last month that the district expected to be able to use the state debt service aid if the March referendum passed because it already has secured that aid from the state.
    ”We’re successful now, and the likelihood is the state aid will hold,” he said at the time. “If it’s defeated, and we go to September, who knows?”
   Staff writer Geoffrey Wertime contributed to this report.