Wall schools seek approval on $66 million referendum to help fund long list of projects

WALL - The pitch to voters considering Tuesday’s $66 million school improvement referendum seems to be pay less now or more later.

“The work has to get done,” Board of Education President Ralph Addonizio said about the proposed improvements that stretch across every Wall public school. “There is no way around it, it is almost impossible to fund everything in there out of the general fund.”

Voters will decide on two separate questions during the Dec. 13 referendum vote. The district is spending $113,000 on the election, with $50,000 paid to a public relations firm to promote the YES votes and another $63,000 to hold the special election in December.

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Addonizio said the later date was needed to allow time for all of the proposed projects to receive state approval. He said waiting until the November 2023 election would be too late.

School officials say the long list of projects — from roof replacements to locker room repairs — will be done with or without a successful vote.

But, they contend, if the two-part ballot question is approved, at least $20 million of the required $66 million in repairs will be provided by state grants.

“The district has needs now, from inefficient boilers to roofs that are past the time frame that they were expected to last,” Superintendent Tracy Handerhan said in a statement issued this week. “Additionally, state aid makes this a great financial opportunity for improvements that will directly benefit the students.”

Specifically, voters are being asked to vote on two separate questions.

The first seeks approval for $53.1 million in projects, with $18 million of that amount coming from matching state grants. Addonizio said the remaining amount would be raised through debt bonds, paid back via the district budget.

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He said that portion would not increase taxes because it would replace a $40 million 1998 referendum that is about to be paid off.

But the second question, which seeks authorization for an additional $13 million in projects, would impact taxpayers at a rate of about $60 per year for an average home assessed at $483,357. The district would receive about $2 million in state aid toward those projects.

“Question one has zero tax increase,” Addonizio said. “And Question two gives us more for the (monthly) cost of a Starbucks cup of coffee.”

For the second ballot question to be successful the first one must be approved as well, officials said.

More:Wall school board threatens legal action against longtime critic over social media posts

School leaders contend they have provided voters with all of the information needed, both on a special webpage — dubbed “WTPS Vision” — as well as a multi-colored mailer sent to 30,000 Wall homes.

The mailer declares, “One Vision, One Future” and argues that “for our children to continue learning, creating and growing, we need improvements to our aging infrastructure.”

The school district “worked with a printer and mailing house to produce the informational flyer and have it sent to every residential address in the zip codes that intersect with the school district’s boundaries,” Handerhan said. “Unfortunately, we found that the process was delayed due to reasons beyond our control. We were disappointed in that but with our website, information was always readily available.”

The website offers dozens of frequently asked questions, as well as a short video highlighting repair needs and a detailed list of projects planned for each school and the related costs.

If the first question is approved, Wall High School projects would receive the most funding, $24.7 million, followed by Wall Intermediate School, with $12.6 million; Central Elementary School, $4.9 million; Old Mill Elementary School, $4 million; Allenwood Elementary School, $3.9 million; West Belmar Elementary School, $2.4 million; and Wall Primary School, $364,000.

If the second question is approved, Wall High School would receive an additional $7,972,939; followed by West Belmar Elementary School adding $2.2 million, Wall Intermediate School with $1.5 million; Old Mill Elementary School getting $1 million more; and Allenwood Elementary School receiving another $690,179.

Wall Primary School and Central Elementary School would get no additional funds from the second ballot question.

But he stressed that the district’s expanded informational campaign is needed to counter misinformation that has appeared on social media, specifically Facebook pages devoted to Wall events.

“Don’t just go by social media posts where people are posting opinions but not the facts,” he said. “You can go to the website or send a question in and it will be answered. People can still continue to send in their questions via email and we can answer the questions.”

Voters have been able to vote by mail for weeks and in-person polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Dec. 13, officials said.

Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and several local communities for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of three books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at jstrupp@gannettnj.com and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Wall schools seek approval on $66 million school repair referendum