Chatham BOE Makes Changes to Referendum to Save $3.5 Million; Sets Public Feedback Meeting for Jan. 28

Connecting the proposed performing arts center (yellow) to the Chatham Middle School with an overpass will cost $1 milliion. The BOE is exploring all options. Credits: TAP Chatham

CHATHAM, NJ - The finance committee of the Chatham Board of Education announced that it has worked on saving taxpayers more than $3.5 million dollars with changes to the proposed school referendum at the board's regular meeting on Monday night.

"Once we take in debt service reductions from the state, we're still looking at a net figure for the taxpayer at slightly below that $25 million figure," Matthew Gilfillan, chairman of the board's finance committee said. "On the average Chatham Township household with an average home valuation of $763,000, it will be less than $200 a year and for the borough at the same figure it would be around $178."

Part of the plan would reduce the seating for the proposed performing arts center from 1100 seats to 975, a savings of a $1 million. An additional $1 million could be saved if the overpass connecting the new center to the Chatham Middle School could be eliminated. That part of the plan is still up for discussion.

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The board will be seeking feedback from the public with a special meeting set for 7 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 28 in the Chatham High School Auditorium. The meeting will last two hours. It will be a question-and-answer format.

"I would ask that we add a Saturday morning meeting," Board member Rich Connors said. "There are senior members who can't get here after dark, so I would strongly suggest a Saturday morning meeting. I would ask my fellow board members to keep an open mind. I know you have preferences, but I would ask that you keep an open mind to all possibilities and alternatives. Nothing has been etched in stone. We're asking the public for a significant undertaking. A $200 or $178 increase might not seem like a lot, but I know for a fact that it is a significant sum for some people." 

The referendum had grown to $28 million with the addition of extra classrooms, but changes to the plan has put it back to the original figure of $25 million. Taxpayers will vote on the referendum in April as a separate second question, in addition to the regular school budget, which will also be on the ballot for approval.

Other changes would include reducing the amount of space behind the high school to be turfed - a savings of $1.1 million, and reorganizing the new classrooms for the elementary schools - a savings of $1.48 million. In the latter plan, Southern Boulevard would not receive two new classrooms. Instead, two special education classes would be moved from Southern to Milton Avenue, freeing up two classes at Southern Boulevard.

Milton would get four new classrooms in a two-story plan and Washington Avenue would have two new classrooms built. The expansions are part of a plan to carve space out for full-day kindergarten in the future.

Gilfillan noted that more tweaking would be done at the finance meeting set for Wednesday, Jan. 14.

Before Gilfillan announced his changes to the referendum, Jill Critchley Weber, board president, indicated that the board is likely to reject the request put forth by the public to separate the projects into separate questions, especially the largest and most costly project, the new performing arts center. With the reduction in size, it stands at $11.5 million to build.

"We don't think anything has changed since our last position," Weber said. "We believe the timing is correct. Some of these facilities have become so dilapidated that they need immediate attention. We have considered breaking it into separate questions, but we believe that keeping the projects together as one question is best. All of these have an equal priority and need to be done."

Weber quoted statistics provided by Dr. Michael LaSusa, superintendent of schools, that 44 districts had spent a total of $704 million on school improvement projects. It also was pointed out that 80 percent of proposed improvements were approved statewide.

"We're not alone in this," Weber said.

Board President Jill Critchley Weber says the board still feels the referendum question should stay as one

Matthew Gilfillan, finance chairman, explains the changes to the referendum hat will save the district $3.5 million

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