By MATTHEW SOCKOL
FREEHOLD – The state will fund about 85 percent of a $33 million construction project in the Freehold Borough K-8 School District that has been authorized by New Jersey Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe to deal with the issue of student overcrowding.
The announcement of Hespe’s decision was made by state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) at a press conference held at the Park Avenue Complex in Freehold Borough on Aug. 4.
“This legal decision was based on the fact there is clear evidence to show that the lack of capacity we have in terms of room in our school (district) is affecting the education of our children,” Beck said.
According to a press release from the district, Freehold Borough ended the 2015-16 school year with 572 more students than it had space to adequately house.
Unlike some neighboring school districts that have seen their enrollment decline over the past several years, Freehold Borough has experienced enrollment growth. The district rents classrooms in the Freehold Township K-8 School District on an annual basis to accommodate students who cannot be educated in one of Freehold Borough’s three schools.
To address the issue of overcrowding in the borough’s schools, district administrators in 2014 presented voters with two referendums that proposed a $33 million construction package that would have added about $280 to a property owner’s annual school tax payment. Both referendums were rejected.
After the referendums were rejected, district administrators appealed to Hespe to override the votes and direct the school improvements to be made.
In December 2015, following hearings that were held as part of the appeal process, Administrative Law Judge Susan Scarola found that the overcrowding of the district’s facilities affected the learning of general education and special education students and she recommended that Hespe authorize the school improvements.
“(Scarola) did a very good job of compiling the years, and I am going to say more than a decade of evidence that we have a growing population of students and that the limited funding provided by the state has imposed a very unique challenge on our educators here,” Beck said.
In his decision, Hespe concurred with Scarola that the construction project was necessary to provide the district’s students with a thorough and efficient system of education.
Hespe also found that the scope and costs of the project were tailored to protect the interests of taxpayers while ensuring the district’s students receive a thorough and efficient education and he authorized the improvements.
“The commissioner emphasizes that this decision to authorize the issuance of bonds outside of a referendum represents an extraordinary remedy that has been exercised only after the development of a full and complete record clearly demonstrating that the failure to act will deprive children in this community of the educational opportunity they will need to succeed in life,” the decision reads. “All such petitions for relief must be subjected to a high level of scrutiny and, for this reason, the commissioner cautions that the facts and application of law are highly specific to this situation and not broadly applicable to other districts.”
In order to alleviate the impact of his decision on the district’s taxpayers, Hespe awarded the district a grant in the amount equal to all costs associated with the proposed new construction. The district was authorized to issue bonds for the local share of the costs for rehabilitating its buildings, according to the commissioner’s decision.
With the state funding about 85 percent ($28 million) of the proposed $33 million project, the district will pay approximately $5 million. The exact costs and the impact on property taxes of that $5 million expenditure are not known at this time. The referendum will add classrooms and other facilities to the borough’s schools, according to district administrators.
” … once we actually work with … our own bond counsel and our own financial advisers … we should be able to get an exact figure as to whatever financial impacts these are,” Tomazic said.
When Hespe’s decision was announced at the press conference, it was met with applause from those in attendance.
In the hours following the announcement, the commissioner’s decision received praise from the Latino Coalition, which is a regional civil rights organization, and state Assembly members Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey (both D-Monmouth).
A majority of Freehold Borough’s public school students are Hispanic.
In announcing Hespe’s decision, Beck said, “This success for Freehold Borough would not have been possible without the community coming together and being vocal advocates for their schools. Superintendent Tomazic, the Freehold Borough school board, Mayor Nolan Higgins and the Borough Council, teachers, parents and residents all spoke with one voice and their hard work has clearly paid off. The real winners here are the students of the Freehold Learning Center, the Park Avenue Elementary School and the Freehold Intermediate School.”
Beck was praised by Tomazic, Higgins, Board of Education President Michael Lichardi, Councilwoman Sharon Shutzer and Freehold Borough Education Association President Heidi Brache.
“On behalf of all of us in the district – and I mean all of us, the students, the teachers, the administrators, the board members and certainly the borough residents – we thank you for all of the tireless effort you have made on our behalf that goes back (a) decade,” Tomazic said.
“Senator, on behalf of Freehold Borough, you have been a friend and an advocate for us,” Higgins said. “You stuck in this fight all the way and we appreciate it.”
“Thank you all,” Beck said at the end of the press conference. “I look forward to seeing you at the groundbreaking.”