SUMMIT, NJ - Capital improvement funding worth more than $5 mllion needed to convert the city’s Jefferson and Wilson Primary Centers to accommodate full-day kindergarten was vetoed by a 3-2 vote of the Summit Board of School Estimate on Monday.
Because Summit is a Type I school district, the city’s appointed board of education needs final approval by the board of school estimate for both its operating and capital improvement budgets.
The school estimate board this year, chaired by Mayor Ellen Dickson, includes board of education president George Lucaci, Common Council finance chairman Dave Bomgaars, school board operations committee chairman Edgar Mokuvos and council finance committee member Councilman Robert Rubino.
When the vote on full-day kindergarten was taken, the mayor was joined by the two council members in opposing the expenditure.
However, the board of school estimate did approve approximately $17 million in capital improvement projects in the school body’s five-year plan that will include renovations to Summit High School, the Lawton C. Johnson Middle School and Franklin and Jefferson Elementary Schools.
The list includes:
- $925,000 for boiler replacement and classroom reconfiguration in the high school;
- $2,300,000 for new seating, new lighting, new rigging and other improvements to the middle school auditorium;
- $1,150,000 for repointing of brick on the middle school;
- $3,325,000 for replacing science laboratories in the middle school and locating them in a different area of the school along with reconfiguring classrooms to enhance “collaborative education” between sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes and teachers and between the laboratories and more conveniently located classrooms;
- $4,600,000 to include a new addition at Franklin School, to include new classrooms and an elevator that will enable handicapped access to the addition, and relocation of the main office and nurse’s office near the front entrance to make the school more secure; and
- $5,250,000 in improvements to Jefferson Elementary School to increase security, construct restrooms closer to the school’s cafeteria; set up some classrooms to help special needs students learn routine daily living activities more efficiently, decrease the steep slope in the school’s parking lot, eliminate the electrical panel that currently is located next to the parking lot and allow better entrance and exiting of traffic both to the lot and to the city aquatic center next to the school.
In addition, due to a strong push by Bomgaars, Dickson and Rubino, school officials agreed to include as an alternate in the bids for the capital projects a contingency to repair a drainage problem at the Jefferson Primary Center which, Bomgaars said, has caused flooding in the city locker room and concession stand since the primary center was built about four years ago.
If the cost of repairing the drainage problem cannot be addressed in the capital plan funding the board of education will have to try to find the money for it in its capital reserve or its Fund 12 and seek approval for use of these funds from the school estimate board.
Full-day kindergarten (FDK), one of the most debated issues in the Hilltop City in several years, was supported by the school board and many school administrators and staffers, who saw it as essential for meeting the state’s Core Curriculum requirements while responding to the need to close the achievement gap among some economically-disadvantaged students entering Summit schools.
Opponents, however, argued that the proposal was too expensive, especially in light of an economy recently coming out of recession and greatly increasing county taxes. They also believed full-day kindergarten could potentially take money away from the other badly needed projects in the city’s schools and harm a number of full-day “wrap-around” programs conducted by religious institutions and civic organizations in the city.
In opposing FDK, Summit Taxpayers Association president Thomas Garvey noted “We already struggle with mandated state, county and municipal expenses which crowd out voluntary school programs like FDK,” adding that “taxes are a zero sum game and FDK could be funded by tax dollars currently being wasted by Union County.”
He pointed to the full-day programs currently existing in Summit funded by private versus public money and said the learning gap was a good opportunity for the city’s schools to practice “community outreach programs” with existing private classes.
The taxpayer association head said empirical analysis was needed to prove the “hypothesis that good schools are a community asset adding value to our real estate.”
He added, “Arguing ‘some families can’t afford private FDK’ presumes the counter argument ‘some families can’t afford higher taxes’ is no excuse. Property taxes hurt new young home buyers and older existing homeowners the most, causing harm to Summit diversity and stability.”
Superintendent of Schools Nathan Parker said, however, that the Common Core Standards raise the bar for all students entering the first grade and FDK was necessary to meet this higher standard.
Parker added existing FDK programs, in terms of helping Summit students reach their full potential, “are both unequal and uncoordinated.”
He added the school board’s community survey demonstrated that city residents know that all evidence points to the importance of FDK and there is no research that says that half-day courses are better than FDK.
The superintendent disputed a claim by Garvey that the operational cost of FDK was $5.1, saying the figure was $1,089,298.
However, another frequent critic of the FDK proposal, Councilman Tom Getzendanner, noted the school district invested $23 million in school facilities, wisely, over five years, in a measure approved by the board of school estimate in 2008, but the debt service on Summit’s $100 million debt consumes about 17 percent of the municipal budget because only half of state ROD grant funds to pay for current school capital budgets have been received.
He added the city could not afford “another $22 million in one fell swoop on top of $54 million in non-school projects the city just compiled last Tuesday night. Who’s rationing these Wish Lists down to something the taxpayer can afford?”
Getzendanner, noting the average homeowner in Summit pays $16,400 in annual property taxes, with some bills exceeding $80,000. said, “a saturation point has been reached. Further increases will price our precious diversity right out of the marketplace, and turn Summit into a millionaire’s club.”
Mokuvos, however, said all the evidence pointed to the benefits of FDK, especially in trying to help students meet the standard imposed by the 45-state-adopted Core Curriculum Standards.
He added, “We cannot meet the Core Curriculum Standards with a half-day program.”
Mokuvos said if the aim is kept at zero there would be a future negative impact on quality education in Summit.
He estimated the cost of FDK, spread over two to three years, would only be about $30 per year.
Rubino said he had discussed the proposed with many community members and groups who were overwhelmingly opposed to it.
He said his reading of the studies showed there only was a marginal benefit to FDK, and not beyond third grade.
The councilman said it was a matter of educational priorities--he wanted to see Summit High School, currently ranked 15th in the state, going to number one--and he believed the current students should get the most benefit.
Rubino also agreed with Garvey about the importance of the private and civic-organization-backed programs and noted parents would still have the option of keeping their children in half-day sessions.
Although agreeing city residents should fight with the county over its large tax increases, Lucaci noted Summit’s public school principals and teaching staff members told the school board that the city’s first graders already were fallling behind.
He said Rubino’s statistic about the third grade only applied in districts with much weaker teachers than Summit’s. The benefits of FDK, he noted, continue beyond age 40.
The school board president added the benefits of quality education should apply to all children, and “those who chose to live in this town must support all the children in this town.”
He said financial experts agreed the 1.2 percent projected interest rate to pay for the FDK program “was like free money.
Lucaci said city residents would regret in the future not investing in FDK at the present time.
Bomgaars said he was more concerned about the operating costs than the construction costs of FDK.
He also said there was no state mandate for FDK and the incidence of FDK programs in the I and J factor groups to which Summit compares itself “is only 50-50.”
He noted the municipality had produced a budget with only a $9.25 per household tax increase, including factoring in $46 million in school debt.
The finance chairman said he would be more willing to consider FDK if enrollments dropped and there were additional teachers and classroom space that could be reallocated to the full-day program.
Dickson, noting that county taxes next year would cost the average Summit homeowner about $386 more, added the 30 percent increase in student enrollment last year meant the schools should aim expenditures at addressing the needs of current students.
She said if enrollment increases dropped to about 2 percent per year, as the board’s demographers have predicted, that would be the time to consider the new program.
The mayor said the board of education should work with the private sector to improve the existing “wrap-around” programs to better meet the public school district’s standards.
Former Second Ward Republican Councilman Michael Vernotico, who is running for his former seat this year as a Democrat, congratulated the board of school estimate for approving the capital program and not “kicking the can down the road.”
The 1964 Summit High School graduate added though that “Summit is all about the kids,” not just the current students.
Vernotico noted, however, contrary to one of Garvey’s assertions, young families are, in fact, struggling to move into Summit and starter homes are among the fastest growing segment of the community.
He also disputed the contention that excellent schools have little to do with real estate values, noting that neighboring Millburn, with excellent schools has excellent home values, while Maplewood’s lower home values may be a reflection of some of its schools.
On the overall capital improvement plan, Second Ward Republican council candidate Sandra Lizza wanted assurances from the school officials that the district would not ask for approval for another major capital project for the next five years.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Business Louis Pepe said there would not be another request for a major project for five years, but, because the projects on the current request list would be phased in over time they probably would not be completed until 2016.
Jefferson School representatives Angie Gannon and Tracey Luckner thanked residents throughout Summit and the board of school estimate for their support of the needed safety, sanitary and security improvements at the school.