District accepts Chabad bid for West End School

Staff Writer

 The Menachem Learning Institute submitted a successful $3.3 million bid for the purchase of the West End Elementary School in Long Branch.  KENNY WALTER/STAFF The Menachem Learning Institute submitted a successful $3.3 million bid for the purchase of the West End Elementary School in Long Branch. KENNY WALTER/STAFF The Long Branch Public School District has sold the West End Elementary School for $3.3 million to a sole bidder.

The Long Branch Board of Education approved a resolution Jan. 29 to award the sale of the building to the Menachem Learning Institute, better known as the Chabad of the Shore, which was the only bidder.

“We actually anticipated that amount,” Superintendent of Schools Michael Salvatore said. “We have property there that is a pretty significant property in a great location in the city.

“It is three blocks from the ocean, one block from restaurants and dining. We anticipated a good amount coming from that.”

District officials’ decision to sell the elementary school and two others came on the heels of a restructuring of all lower schools, along with the construction of the George L. Catrambone Elementary School in Elberon. The request for bids went out on Nov. 22. Salvatore said eight bid packages were picked up, but the Chabad was the only entity to formally make an offer on the building before the bid period ended.

“There were some questions that came up from some groups early on, but on the bid-opening day [Jan. 23], this is the only one that had a legitimate offer,” he said.

In June 2012, the Chabad of the Shore applied to the Long Branch Zoning Board of Adjustment with plans to convert a vacant movie theater on Ocean Avenue in West End into a state-of-the-art Jewish synagogue and community center. Since religious uses are not permitted in the zone, the Chabad requested that the board grant a use variance.

Several contentious hearings were held on the application, with opposition coming from several neighboring businesses that retained an attorney. The board rejected the application in June 2013. Steven Tripp, the attorney representing the Chabad, filed an appeal of the board’s decision, and a trial is scheduled for Feb. 21 in state Superior Court in Freehold. Neither Tripp nor Rabbi Laibel Shapiro, executive director of the Chabad of the Shore, could be reached for comment last week on the question of whether the organization would continue to pursue the appeal.

Salvatore said the litigation is not a factor in the bid for the building.

“Anything else they are involved with doesn’t really impact us, because when you are a public entity and go out to bid … for properties, it’s the highest bidder.”

The funds generated by the sale of the West End School will be included in the school district’s general budget, and will be used for capital improvements and tax relief, Salvatore said.

“That money will not be going into this year’s general fund. It is going to be used to help build the budget for next year,” he said. “We are building the budget for [fiscal year 2015], so a good portion of those funds will be used for tax relief.”

The school, located on West End Avenue, dates back to the early 1900s, with a portion of the structure built during the 1920s or 1930s. The property is currently assessed at $3.6 million.

The projected closing date on the school is July 18, but there is a clause in the contract that stipulates the district could rent the building for $5,000 per month, should a problem arise with the new school that is being constructed, according to Salvatore. However, he said the Catrambone school is on pace for completion and expected to open in September.

“We have timelines from the state education department that they are meeting right now for that school,” Salvatore said. “We will be able to migrate in there in late spring or early summer.

“So we will know by April if the timelines are on point or not,” he added. “If they are not, then we are going to need additional time.” With the building on schedule to open next fall, district officials are drafting a plan to finalize staffing, technology and other components for the school, Salvatore said.

“We are currently working on a technology budget for that building, [and] we are working on materials and supplies, as well as staffing, which probably won’t be finalized until May,” he said.

While he was excited about opening the new school building, Salvatore said the move is bittersweet.

“We are excited about it, but there is some sentimental value too, because the [West End School] building is more than 100 years old,” he said.

According to Salvatore, the Chabad has submitted a $50,000 down payment, and it was required to make an additional $150,000 payment within seven days of the board’s vote. The organization must then obtain a mortgage, he said.

With the sale of the West End School complete, Salvatore can turn his attention to two other school buildings currently up for sale — the Church Street School and the annex to the former Star of the Sea School. He said it is unlikely either would surpass the $3.3 million purchase price of the West End School.

“Those buildings were out to bid already and came back without successful bidders,” Salvatore said. “It would be great if we could match that, but I don’t anticipate that at all.”

The Long Branch Public School District operates 10 schools and has an enrollment of approximately 5,500 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade.

The district is one of the state’s 31 former Abbott districts, which receive increased state funding based on a 1985 court ruling that identified New Jersey’s poorest districts based on poverty and educational inadequacy. For the current school year, the district received approximately $52 million in state aid toward the approximately $80 million operating budget.

According to Edye Maier, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA), the price tag for the George L. Catrambone Elementary School, is $40.1 million, paid for with SDA funds.