WATCHUNG – Borough voters will go to the polls Dec. 13 to decide whether to approve two referendum questions for nearly $16 million for improvements to borough schools.
With a potential $5 million in state aid to offset principal and interest costs, passage of both ballot questions would prompt a $323 a year increase in property taxes for the average assessed home value of $760,895, according to the school board.
Approval of Question 1 would carry only an impact of $260 annual property tax increase for the average house. The first question can pass on its own, but the second is contingent on the passing of the first.
The total cost, with state aid and interest, is $16.73 million, of which borough taxpayers would pay $10.67 million after state aid. The state has deemed 94.5% of the project eligible to receive debt service aid, which means the state will fund approximately 34% of the cost, school officials said.
"With a view toward preparing our students for a lifetime of learning and working in a global community, this referendum is designed to align our learning spaces with our instructional vision and address important infrastructure needs," said Superintendent George P. Alexis. "It includes plans to transform spaces, enhance security, ensure ADA compliance, update technology infrastructure, save energy costs, and improve health and safety by replacing outdated HVAC and building systems. "
The superintendent also said the school improvements would increase the value of property in the municipality.
"The community has the opportunity to enhance property values through an investment in its schools and take advantage of state funding through debt service aid, which would reduce the total costs by approximately one third and save taxpayers over $5 million," Alexis said.
During the development of the district's long-range facilities plan, the Board of Education identified renovation projects to ensure the continued safe operation and maintenance of its schools and create new learning opportunities by transforming outdated rooms into 21st-century learning spaces.
Much of the infrastructure is beyond its useful life, making the timing of the replacements and upgrades critical, school officials said.
Projects in Question 1 of the referendum include transformed indoor learning spaces, enhanced security, updated technology infrastructure, ADA compliance, new HVAC and building systems, electrical upgrades, site improvements and roof repairs at both schools.
At Valley View Middle School, projects include a Media Center conversion to a Learning Commons, an art studio expansion and alteration and acoustic upgrades for music rooms.
At Bayberry Elementary School, projects include flooring, ceiling and Media Center carpet replacements, plumbing system upgrades and site lighting improvements.
The total cost for Question 1 projects is $12.8 million with state aid of $4.21 million and a cost of $8.59 million for the district.
Question 2 projects add an outdoor learning commons and repurposed softball field at Valley View Middle School and air conditioning in both the Bayberry Elementary and Valley View Middle schools' gymnasiums. This question bumps up the total costs by another $2.92 million with $839,622 in state aid and a cost of $2.08 million for taxpayers.
The district serves more than 600 students in pre-K through eighth grade in two schools. Students in grades pre-K to 4 attend Bayberry Elementary School, and students in grades 5 to 8 attend Valley View Middle School. Watchung students attend Watchung Hills Regional High School.
The project would be designed, bid and constructed over a period of approximately three years, school officials said.
Polls will be open Dec. 13 for in-person voting from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Watchung Exempt Firemen Hall on 57 Mountain Boulevard.
For more information, go to the district's referendum page at https://www.watchungschools.com/board-of-education/referendum2022#Q7.
Cheryl Makin is an award-winning features and education reporter for MyCentralJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. Contact: Cmakin@gannettnj.com or @CherylMakin. To get unlimited access, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Watchung NJ voters to decide on $16M in school improvements