BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ -- Bernards Township school leaders are continuing work on plans for a renovated kitchen and cafeteria at Ridge High School, but some residents are urging the board to hit the pause button on the project.
The Board of Education has heard questions at the last two “virtual” meetings asking if it might be prudent to suspend the $2.9 million project, given the uncertainty of state funding for schools and the poor general economy in the midst of the COVID-19 virus crisis that has taken more than 9,000 New Jersey lives.
Noel Geoffroy of Belmont Court asked via email at the May 4 meeting whether an idea that made sense a few months ago might be better postponed in the current economic environment.
James Vopal of Evergreen Place also suggested holding off on updates and saving reserves, saying “You don’t know what will be coming.” A postponement of a year or two won’t make much of a difference, he said.
On April 27, in answer to a question from Ann Lauridsen of 76 Blackburn Road, Superintendent Nick Markarian and board members made it clear the café/kitchen project was not an expansion of the high school building’s footprint, but more of a rethinking of space and updating of renovation of food preparation equipment that is more than 30 years old.
Lauridsen said she thought it was fiscally prudent to hold onto money for budget shortfalls that might occur.
School leaders wanted to make it clear there was no current idea to add to the school. In December, the Board of Education decided only to renovate while dropping a plan to add a wing for a kitchen and build four classrooms on a second floor above it. The modernized kitchen will feature new ovens, refrigerators, stoves and the like.
The board had touted a more productive kitchen and café as part of any plan to restructure the high school day to a “rotating drop” block schedule of fewer, but longer, class periods per day. A newer kitchen and café would still allow the school to continue with its current lunch configuration, if it wanted, Markarian said.
Markarian said the timeline is to bid the job before the end of 2020, begin work in the spring and be in operation for the 2020-21 school year. The district plans to pay for the project without conducting a bond referendum.
As part of the May 4 budget presentation Business Administrator Rod McLaughlin showed a floor plan of one design of a new kitchen and cafeteria.
Geoffroy suggested it was possible that aid to schools could be reduced as part of the state budget squeeze that will come with unprecedented costs of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The legislature has extended its fiscal year and possibly won’t strike a budget before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Lauridsen called the project “a luxury to accommodate block scheduling,” and suggested waiting for a clearer picture of finances. Taxpayers are hurting, she said.
Markarian said he felt by the fall the board should have time to review the economic climate before voting whether to proceed.
The district is positioned well, with a healthy capital projects reserve fund, Markarian said, and he had “every confidence the Board of Education would be well advised by the CFO.”
The school board has indicated a desire to switch to a “rotating drop” schedule of eight class periods, each about 55 to 60 minutes long, in a day. Such a revision would require one common lunch period for the entire school. Now, about 2,000 students and staff eat lunch over five 42-minute class periods spanning from about 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.