CHATHAM, NJ - The School District of the Chathams Board of Education unanimously approved a proposed $25 million referendum to fund six improvement projects as one public question at its meeting held Monday night.
The final adoption of the school budget and referendum proposal will take place March 23. The taxpayers will vote on the school budget and referendum when the school election is held April 21.
During two special public meetings to hear feedback and answer questions on the subject, the last being held Feb. 28, residents had urged the board to break the referendum into separate questions or group them into three tiers.
Originally, the board insisted the referendum could not be divided into separate questions because it was "linear" and one question defeated would prevent the rest from being approved. After Peter Daquila, district business administrator, explained that there could be separate questions, the board listened to feedback and announced Monday its decision to keep it as one question.
Finance chair Matthew Gilfillan, board president Jill Critchley Weber, and board members Thomas Belding, Michelle Clark, Phil Franz, Kim Cronin, Lata Kenney and John Nonnemacher all agreed with the finance committee's recommendation to put the referendum forward as one question. Board member Richard Connors did not attend the meeting.
Each board member gave their reasoning behind keeping the referendum as one question. In brief:
- Weber - "The finance committee took everything into consideration and to get the maximum value of all of our dollars and achieve the same high results, we've decided to keep this as one question."
- Belding cited "inflation" as the reason taxes have increased so quickly over the years and stated, "There is no better alternative."
- Franz - "I've spoken and encouraged comments from friends, neighbors...people entrusted me to use fair judgment of which I have taken very seriously...I can't hit a curve ball, I can't sing, I was a less than dedicated student, but, my thinking is that we have to do what's best for the children."
- Clark - "We as a board have talked about this so many times and I've talked to many, many people. I think it should stay as one question. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I encourage everyone to vote. I hope it leads to a higher (voter) turnout and people will be able to express their desires."
- Kenney - "I think that all the projects are equally important. The referendum will fund the improvements that the district needs in the most cost-effective manner. Therefore, I support keeping the referendum as one question."
- Nonnemacher - "No matter what I did, no matter how I cast a vote, there was going to be a certain portion of the population that was going to be disappointed. So, when I say to you that I support the finance committee's decision to leave it a one question, I don't want you to think that was an easy thing. It required a lot of work and sleepless nights. I look at the alternatives and I feel the only way I can act in the best interests of Chatham...is to endorse the committee's decision."
- Cronin - "We have not heard one idea that we did not explore. Originally, I was a no on the new building and I was a yes on multiple questions. I'm big on the numbers and what it came down to, we have right now 997 students at CMS that share one STEM room. For me, the turning point is that we don't have the classrooms. In order to add classrooms at CMS, we need the new building. I support the one question."
Matthew Gilfillan, finance chair, proposes the referendum be kept as one question
"For me, it's really a sad day for Chatham when the board of ed really abrogates fiduciary rights of the voters of the district by denying them the democratic right of choice," borough resident Len Resto said. "It's unconscionable that the board is throwing the average taxpayer under the bus by making them feel guilty and conflicted...by casting a no vote because of a building they feel is not needed. The taxpayers of the district will provide an answer on April 21st. They will vote as they see fit and I recommend a strong no vote."
Residents Jane Devlin and Jen Clarke spoke in support of board's decision to keep it as one question. Others disagreed.
"I'm very disappointed with the decision to keep it as one question," township resident Susan O'Brien said. "I feel it's our right to be able to vote on these issues individually as parents of the community."
The point of contention between the board and the taxpayers is the construction of a 975-seat performing arts center on the oval in front of the Chatham Middle School, absorbing $11.8 million of the proposed $24,838,189 bond issue.
Opponents proposed a separate vote on the projects and urged for the renovation of the existing auditoriums in lieu of the $11.8 million performing arts center. But the new performing arts center is part of the plan to move the district administrative offices to the middle school from the current location at the township municipal building.
The referendum includes additional elementary school classrooms, improvements to athletic facilities at Cougar Field and the fields behind the high school.
Finance chairman Matthew Gilfillan explained that the original goal was to improve facilities for the arts and he didn't want to risk breaking up the referendum into separate questions.