Metuchen school officials: Proposed referendum will address student growth, move district forward

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METUCHEN – Voters will head to the polls and decide on three referendum ballot questions, which Metuchen school officials say will essentially move the district forward for the next 20 to 30 years.

Since the 1998 and 2004 referenda, the district has a much larger student population from what was once 1,500 to 1,700 students to now 2,300 students give or take, according to Board member Jonathan Lifton, who chairs the referendum committee.

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Throughout the year, Lifton has updated the public on the proposed referendum at the monthly Board of Education meetings.

Question 1 involves everything that is being physically constructed totaling $69.48 million.

Metuchen High School

  • Addition of air conditioning.
  • Add on to existing cafeteria – current cafeteria is undersized and requires three lunch periods starting as early as 10:30 a.m. and as late as 1 p.m., Lifton said.
  • Includes additional classroom space.

Lifton said the proposed improvements will connect the two wings at the high school making a “H,” which will improve student traffic. The additional space will accommodate board offices, which are proposed to move from the Moss School.

Edgar Middle School

  • Addition of air conditioning.
  • Reconfiguration of grades. Move Grade 5 out to make Edgar an “educationally appropriate” 6-8 school, Lifton said.
  • New cafeteria.
  • Extra classroom, small group and extended performance space.
  • New safer entrance wing where the buses drop and pick up in the parking lot circle.

Campbell Elementary School

  • Addition of air conditioning.
  • Reconfiguration of grades. Move Grades 1 and 2 to Moss School and move Grade 5 in to make an “educational, developmentally appropriate” 3-5 school, Lifton said.
  • Small group space.
  • New cafeteria.
  • New playground.

Moss School

  • Addition of air conditioning.
  • Create space for Grades 1 and 2.
  • Create space to add full-day kindergarten, which would allow Metuchen to join 97% of school districts already offering full-day kindergarten. Currently the district offers half-day kindergarten.
  • New playground.

Question 2 has to do with operating costs associated with Question 1 totaling $800,000 per year.

The operating costs will include teachers at Moss School for the proposed full-day kindergarten, a principal for the school, and additional electricity and heating costs for the additional space, Lifton said.

Question 1 and 2 have to pass together in order for the referendum to move forward, school officials said.

Question 3 stands alone for a new gym, new locker rooms, and a new turf field at the high school totaling $12.75 million. Lifton said the items are more of a want than a real base need.

The new gym will address some deficiencies including a ceiling that’s too low to accommodate some sports including volleyball. A larger gym would also accommodate the growing school population, he said.

The current field was put down in the 2004 referendum and is reaching the end of its useful rated life.

“It’s still safe and can be played on well and safely,” Lifton said, noting at some point in one to five years, the field will have to replaced.

As time goes on, Lifton said it will be more and more difficult to go out to the public for assistance due to rising costs and inflation.

Why now?

For financial reasons, the interest rates are still at traditional lows, Lifton said.

“With inflation things only get expensive,” he said. “They are certainly cheaper now than they will be in two years, five years, 10 years. History tells us that things always go up, never go down.”

Fields and buildings have rated and useful lives.

“The Metuchen School District has kept up remarkably well,” Lifton said. “The administration and this board and prior boards have made promises to the public with the 1998 and 2004 referenda that we would not waste public money by building things and letting them deteriorate. We have spent a lot of time, money and effort to keep these buildings up, so they are not falling down.”

Lifton said the public has to be mindful that “things do get old.”

“During the time of the 1998 and 2004 referenda, the district was experiencing a declining student population,” he said. “There’s no way that board [at the time] could have predicted the growth in the district that we have had over the last number of years. That’s why we find ourselves with a situation in the schools that are difficult. We have cafeterias that are way too small for the population.”

Lifton said another reason for ‘Why now?’ is the fact that the bonds for the prior two referendums are expiring.

“In essence, we are reissuing those bonds, using the money that’s being paid off from these bonds to be moved into the new construction, thereby defraying the costs of the new construction,” he said.

Tax impact

On the average assessed value of a home in Metuchen at $211,143, for Question 1, the average annual tax increase over 30 years will add $122.46 to the municipal portion of the tax bill and Question 2 will add $147.80.

If Question 1 and 2 pass, the average annual tax increase over 30 years will total $270.26.

If only Question 3 passes, the average annual tax increase over 30 years will total $124.57.

If all three questions pass, the average annual tax increase over 30 years will total $394.

The district’s website offers a tax calculator for residents to calculate their individual tax increase.

The architect has estimated debt service state aid at 14%.

If the referendum passes, officials said construction would occur in stages. It could begin as early as the summer 2023 and complete by the beginning of the school year in 2025, officials said.

For more information on the referendum visit  https://sites.google.com/view/metuchenreferendum2022?utm_source=Google+Site&utm_medium=Google+Site&utm_campaign=Referendum+

Polls open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 8.

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