2006-10-05 / Schools

Shore Reg'l mulls options after referendum defeat

Voters in four sending towns overwhelmingly rejected building plan
BY SUE MORGAN Staff Writer

Staff Writer

Shore Regional High School
Shore Regional High School WEST LONG BRANCH -- The Shore Regional High School District is wrestling with ways to fund renovations officials believe are needed to bring the 44-year-old school up-to-date.

Now that voters in four sending communities delivered a knock-out punch to overwhelmingly defeat the district's $49.8 bond construction referendum, school officials are waiting for the results of exit polls taken at polling places during the Sept. 26 special election.

With results in hand, district officials hope to find a building renovation plan that they can sell to the public, which is clearly showing that it is weary of escalating property taxes, said District Business Administrator Stephen Brennan.

In the end, the final tally of 2,244 against to 797 in favor of the referendum among voters from West Long Branch, Oceanport, Monmouth Beach and Sea Bright shows that property owners were worried about school district tax hikes had the referendum passed.

"The feedback has been that the taxes are too much to bear," Brennan said on Friday.

The exit polls, taken by an educational consulting firm, will help district officials decide if a revised, downsized, referendum should be proposed in the future, he explained.

"We're waiting to see if there is a common theme in the exit polls that could help us modify the project and determine its future," said Brennan who added that those results might be available in a few weeks.

Defeat or not, many of the proposed renovations are needed to bring the school into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and to update instructional areas such as classrooms and science labs.

Those pressing items could be addressed through another referendum or piecemeal in forthcoming annual school budgets, Brennan said.

"There's no definite alternate plan right now," Brennan said. "Some of these things have to be done."

However, if the district were to include certain items in the budgets decided on by voters every April, taxpayers would not have the cushion of debt service aid from the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) to help soften the blow, Brennan pointed out.

"That would shift the entire cost [of projects] onto the taxpayer," Brennan said. "It's an inefficient way to do things."

Contingent upon passage of the referendum was the prospect of $17.5 million in debt service aid, or about 35 percent of the total $49.8 ticket price, coming from the DOE, according to Ronald J. Ianoale, Shore Regional's bond counsel for the project.

Had the district received the debt service aid, which must be approved and set aside by the New Jersey State Legislature every year that the bond is open, district taxpayers would have picked up the remaining $32.3 million, plus interest, over the 30-year life on the bond, said Rich Vespucci, a DOE spokesperson.

"The state's share of this project is approved at $17.5 million," Vespucci said in a Sept. 21 e-mail. "This will be paid in annual installments for the life of the bond issue, usually 30 years, although a school district can do it for a different length of time."

Shore Regional previously applied for debt service to carry out its renovations, Vespucci said.

The financially strapped New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation (NJSCC), which has been providing grants to other districts in the state since it was first created by the state legislature in 2000, could not assist the district because it has run out of money, both Vespucci and Ianoale have said.

Vote tallies released by the Monmouth County Board of Elections show that slightly more than 20 percent of all registered voters came out to the polls in West Long Branch, Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach.

Voter turnout was only a little higher, about 25 percent, in Oceanport, which sends the second greatest number of students to Shore Regional.

With 1,016 out of its eligible 4,882 votes cast, West Long Branch, which provides the bulk of Shore Regional's student body, rejected the referendum 721 to 295, election results show.

In Oceanport, 1,236 of the borough's 4,239 registered voters came out to turn down the building plan 836 to 386, according to the Board of Elections.

Monmouth Beach voters struck down the referendum by a tally of 453 to 92 , with 545 of its 2,693 registered voters participating.

In Sea Bright, where borough officials publicly urged the small community's 1,194 registered voters to participate, 258 came out to the polls.

Of those, 234 voters cast ballots against the referendum, and 24 pulled

the "yes" level, county totals show.

The smallest of Shore's sending towns, Sea Bright sends only about 20 students to the high school each year.

Each of the four towns would have picked up a portion of the referendum costs based on the percentage that they pick up individually in annual district budgets.

Of the six major big ticket expenses itemized within the referendum, the largest was upgrading the school's classrooms, science labs, media center and administrative offices, all for $15.6 million.

The second most costly item was the renovation and expansion of the building's cafeteria, food service area, boiler rooms and receiving areas for a price tag of $10.2 million.

The district had also sought to renovate one of the school's two gymnasiums by adding on a wrestling room, and by upgradings its team and physical education locker rooms and athletic and training facilities for $9.4 million.

For another $8.9 million, the district had planned to demolish its existing auditorium, construct a much larger one, and renovate its music classroom, all to be ADA-compliant.

At a cost of $3.5 million, the referendum called for Astroturf, new bleachers and a new scoreboard for the school's football field and other outside athletic fields.

Finally, the renovation of a second, smaller gym, and its locker rooms was to be completed for $2.1 million.

This year's enrollment figures will not be available until mid-October. However, officials have estimated the current student body at about 750 students.

The building, located off state Highway 36, last saw renovations in the early 1970s.

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