CHATHAM, NJ - The Chatham Board of Education took no formal vote, but all members at the meeting held Monday night agreed that all six projects in the $25 million referendum will be "bundled" as one question when the voters get their say this April.

"These have been discussed for many, many years, so it's not something we're rushing into," Board President Jill Critchley Weber said. "We're trying to take advantage of the timing."

Matthew Gilfillan, finance chairman, announced that it was decided that all six of the projects would be bundled together. He detailed that there was something in the referendum for everyone in the District of the Chathams.

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The largest and most controversial expenditure is the 1,100-seat performing arts center that would be built on the oval of the Chatham Middle School. It would cost $12.5 million to construct, nearly half of the proposed $25 million referendum that will be put before the voters in April.

During the public portion of the meeting, Chatham resident Peter Hoffman questioned the board about the money being spent on the performing arts center in lieu of increased classroom instruction. He also expressed concern that special interest groups were influencing the board with their support.

"My concern generally, is that there are a lot of valid concerns about the size and scope of the proposed referendum that are being drowned out by special interest groups that are making enough noise to be heard by the board," Hoffman said. "What I personally don't understand - and I'd like to hear more about in the weeks and months to come - is how the referendum is so replete with certain items that have been cobbled together. One of the items received higher priority than others. There are many programs that were eliminated during budget cuts. For example, World Language in the elementary schools. Where is the discussion about restoring programs that involve real classroom learning? How is it decided that they are more or less important than a 1,100 seat performing arts center? Is a performing arts center more important than enhanced classroom instruction?

"As far as facilities are concerned, why isn't an expansion of the high school cafeteria, one of my pet peeves, being considered as one of the projects, along with the renovation of a 40-year-old facility. I think they both can be addressed if all our resources aren't squandered on one facility, which, as far as I'm concerned, doesn't really enhance the classroom experience. Why can't we cut back on the performing arts center and address everything?"

Before Hoffman spoke, each member of the board gave their opinion on the referendum. Board members Phil Franz, Rich Connors and Gilfillan were among those who said they were initially against bundling all the projects into one question, but changed their minds and felt it would gain more support from the public as one question.

"I was initially against putting everything together," Connors said. "If we don't put it all together, we'll have the have and have-nots. I think it's important that we don't ignore one group and favor another.

"It's critical that we maintain our facilities, and we've done a good job of that. Why can't we make use of the facilities we already have? Well, we can't. It's time that we upgrade our facilities and it's important if we want to keep going forward. We need to get more detail on the physical appearance and we need to have more public meetings. I think, as the process progresses, we should have public hearings and get the input. You are the guys who are paying for it. It's important that you're with us every step of the way. It's important that we go hand in hand."

Resident Brian Keating countered that he was against putting all six projects together in one referendum.

"Packaging the projects, in my opinion, is not the answer," Keating said. "It's only a way to get it passed. Put everything out there on its own merit and let the taxpayers decide. And speaking of taxpayers deciding, I for one, and I think a lot of people agree, would like to see the vote moved to November elections, where more people will have the opportunity to vote, not just special interest groups."

Superintendent Dr. Michael LaSusa noted that Chatham would be in line for debt service reimbursement from the state Department of Education if it presented its plan by January.

"The critical piece is that the DOE needs the applications at some point in January, so then you would know, and everyone would know, what percentage would be eligible for debt service relief," LaSusa said.

According to Peter Daquila, the board's business administrator, 20 to 40 percent of the cost of the projects could be reimbursed by the state. However, he noted that it is unlikely that the performing arts center would meet the state requirements for debt service.

"I would like to suggest the board include as part of it’s proposal an option to upgrade each auditorium and the cost for each, perhaps even laying out the costs for minimal safety and ADA compliance up through making them 'state-of-the-art' facilities, which I suspect would be a much lower price tag than 16 million dollars (12.5 for the PAC and 3.5 for the conversion)," Chatham resident Libby Hilsenrath said. "This would allow the voters to decide on which they would like, if any. Additionally, maybe each of the other items on the referendum could be broken out separately allowing people to vote yes or no on each item."
Board finance chairman Matthew Gilfillan announces that the board will go forward with all six projects

Board finance chairman Matthew Gilfillan explains how there is something for everyone in the referendum

In addition to the performing arts center, the referendum question would include the auditorium conversion at CMS into board offices and classrooms ($3.3 million); auditorium renovation at CHS ($910,000); Turf Fields behind CHS ($4.5 million); Cougar Field renovations ($1.4 million) and eight new elementary school classrooms ($5 million).

A number of board members said they wanted to compare the costs of sod vs. turf for the fields being proposed for behind the high school. Board member Thomas Belding proposed the compilation of a grid that would detail the benefits of each project.

"Timing is everything," John Nonnemacher, board member, said. "I don't think we should let this opportunity slip away. However, we need to have more input from the community. You are the ones who are going to be affected by this. We are going to take care of so many different groups, but to do that successfully, we need more input from the public.

"I'm in favor of having another open discussion for the referendum in total and then have all the items on the referendum put before the public one at a time for discussion. We can look at each item, one at a time, so we truly have a reflection of what the community is thinking."