Judge: Schools in Freehold need upgrades

Staff Writer

A decision regarding the Freehold Borough K-8 School District’s plan to build new facilities is now in the hands of New Jersey Education Commissioner David C. Hespe.

District administrators have said the proposed facilities are needed to accommodate a student enrollment that exceeds the capacity of the borough’s three public schools.

Voters have twice rejected referendums in which they were asked by the Board of Education to approve a construction package that exceeds $32 million.

After the second referendum was rejected, district administrators took the next step available to them to get the work done: appealing to the state to override the voters’ rejection of the two construction referendums.

The board petitioned the commissioner of education to overturn the voters’ decision and to issue bonds for the project or to direct the state Legislature to fully fund the improvements. Voters rejected a plan that would have added about $280 to their annual school property tax bill.

According to a press release issued by the school district on Dec. 16, Administrative Law Judge Susan Scarola has recommended the issuance of bonds to pay for the construction of the new facilities. Scarola’s recommendation is non-binding on Hespe.

She is recommending that Hespe order the issuance of bonds totaling $32.9 million by Freehold Borough to fund improvements, renovations and repairs necessary to provide a thorough and efficient education to the students of the school district, according to the press release. “We are relieved Judge Scarola has confirmed the merits of our case and ruled in such a manner,” Superintendent of Schools Rocco Tomazic said.

He said a favorable ruling by Hespe will address “severe overcrowding, which is preventing our students from receiving a thorough and efficient education. My understanding is that the commissioner has 45 days to make a final ruling. That should put it no later than around Feb. 1.”

If Hespe agrees with Scarola’s recommendation and orders the issuance of bonds, Tomazic said, the district “will become very much involved in the construction plan and the many details that come with new construction.”

“We are also continuing our work with legislators and the Department of Education to address our state aid underfunding,” Tomazic said.

The Freehold Borough school district is the third most underfunded district in the state, according to the superintendent.

“This shortfall, as much as overcrowding, is hindering our ability to carry out a thorough and efficient education. It is our intention to keep this issue in clear focus,” Tomazic said.

Public hearings that were held on Sept. 24-25 in Freehold Borough gave residents a chance to express their opinions about the $32.9 million school construction project that was rejected by voters twice in 2014.

Tomazic’s comments, in addition to comments that were made by other interested parties, were included in Scarola’s report and recommendation.

In part, Tomazic stated that in kindergarten through third grade, schools were 79 percent above the size limit; in fourth and fifth grade, schools were 77 percent above the size limit; and in sixth through eighth grade, schools were 14 percent above the size limit.

Scarola said 408 written comments were submitted as part of the record and she said the “overwhelming majority” of the comments were in favor of the construction project. The judge’s report included examples of previous rulings in New Jersey that addressed the issuance of bonds for school improvements following the rejection of referendums.

On Sept. 30, 2014, Freehold Borough voters rejected a $32.9 million referendum by a vote of 374 no to 272 yes. On Dec. 9, 2014, voters rejected the same referendum by a vote of 370 no to 241 yes.

The proposed construction plan includes additional classrooms and other improvements at the district’s three schools: the Park Avenue Elementary School, the Freehold Intermediate School and the Freehold Learning Center elementary school.