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Monroe school board plans to ‘accelerate the process’ for March referendum to address unhoused children

The Monroe Township Board of Education is planning to “accelerate the process” with plans to hold a March referendum depending on New Jersey Department of Education approval.

“We are very excited that we are currently in the queue to be moved up for a March referendum. We are currently waiting to see if that is a possibility,” Superintendent Chari Chanley said.

The school board had been preparing for a referendum specific to renovations and additions at Monroe Township High School, Monroe Township Middle School and Applegarth Elementary School for April 2023, but the township advised the school district that the township was not having an election in April.

“The district had a choice, which is to accelerate the process and try and get it approved for a vote in March or decelerate the process and have it put out for a vote in September,” said Vito Gagliardi, board attorney, at school board meeting in December.

According to Gagliardi, the school board can have a referendum in April if the township governing body was having an election in April or November.

State statute also provides four dates where a school district could have a special election. The four dates are the fourth Tuesday in January, the second Tuesday in March, the last Tuesday in September and the second Tuesday in December.

“The hope is with the state approval coming in January, if it comes, that you will be able to do it in March. We can’t finalize that until we hear from the state,” Gagliardi said.

“If we get the approval in the second or third week in January, then it is my expectation that the board will be in a position to approve the vote based upon the March date, then the September date.”

Referendum contingency plan

If Monroe Township voters vote down the referendum, the immediate plan for the school district is to put the referendum back up for vote by Monroe residents, Chanley said.

“It is my understanding that if the referendum were to fail, we would immediately go out for a referendum again and then we would seek counsel to find out exactly what takes place if the referendum were to fail again,” she said.

Board President Chrissy Skurbe noted that if the referendum passes, the current plan is to have the trailers removed from outside of the schools that have been utilized as space for unhoused students.

“Those trailers will not be there if the referendum does pass,” she said.

Gagliardi added that Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan. state commissioner of education, can “compel the raising of funds for capital projects if the community’s failure to adopt them creates a situation where you have a large number of students, and you can’t safely educate them in the facilities a school district has.”

“So, it is rarely used. It is one the district can invoke if it needs to. But I agree with the superintendent that the immediate plan if the first swipe at this fails, would be to try again,” he said.

Gagliardi further said, “The Department of Education in New Jersey will not let you go years and years without sufficient facilities to house your children. It is a sort of rip cord you can pull if you need to. It cannot be a Plan A.”

Monroe Township High School’s proposal includes a 6,500-square-foot addition on the north side to generate six classrooms for 150 seats.

Renovations and additions at Monroe Township Middle School include a new 67,000-square-foot addition to the front of the school.

The addition is expected to add 32 classrooms for approximately 800 students.

There is 8,300 square feet of renovations within the existing building that would create more space with new administrative spaces and an expanded cafeteria.

Applegarth Elementary School’s proposal includes a new 20,030-square-foot addition, which allows for the creation of outdoor learning space in the courtyard and will create 17 classrooms for 475 new seats, four special education rooms, and special group instruction and child study team spaces.

School referendums

This is the third referendum the school board is planning to put forth to the public.

Voters defeated a two-question, $146 million referendum in March 2019. The first question asked voters if they were in favor of building a new middle school on a 35-acre site at Applegarth and Cranbury Station roads. The school would have housed 1,000 students and cost $75 million to build. The first question was defeated by 995 votes.

The second question asked voters if they were in favor of building an addition to Monroe Township High School at a cost of $71 million. The proposed high school addition was contingent on the passage of the middle school question. The second question was defeated by 1,152 votes.

In 2018, a $68.8 million referendum that proposed the construction of a new middle school was defeated by 143 votes.

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