HAWTHORNE, NJ - The Hawthorne Board of Education seeks to gather public support to pass a Public Schools Referendum which will be held on September 24, 2019. The Board of Education has made the details of proposal available online, publishing a comprehensive website with information for residents to acquaint themselves with the scope and costs of the projects.
Hawthorne Public Schools Superintendent Richard Spirito, Supervisor of Buildings and Grounds Scott Chamberlin, and Board of Education Vice President Alexander Clavijo called a press conference to discuss and explain the depth of the $24.4 million referendum, with the slogan "Bringing our Schools and our Children into the 21st Century".
"We want to upgrade and make sure our schools are the best for our students," Spirito said, "a lot of this work is for facilities and, of course, supports programs. Our schools have an average age of almost 86 years old, some are older than that. There are a lot of schools that have original windows and doors." During the course of the presentation, Spirito showed slides highlighting roof damage in need of repair, old boilers and electrical systems, extensive window replacements for all the schools, and old doors which are no longer deemed safe or compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Between March and December of 2016, a District-Wide Facilities Audit was conducted "which evaluated each of the facilities against a number of criteria and provided recommendations for capital improvement projects to each of the District Schools," the Board of Education slideshow read. The conclusion of the audit was the identification of capital improvements valued at $56 million. From 2017 through October of 2018, Board of Education members toured the schools to determine the priorities they faced, looking mostly at programs, infrastructure, and school security. In late 2018, the Board wanted to move forward a potential referendum and made several reviews with administration to trim down the expenses from the original assessment. By December, in concert with Solutions Architecture, an effort to control costs had been put into effect, trying to strike a chord between essential work to be done and limiting the costs to the Hawthorne taxpayers. In January, the architectural firm provided their project listing that emphasized student achievement and those projects which had a direct impact on the students. It was decided to integrate those with the proposed referendum. The end product was a $24.4 million proposal. From March to April, the Board fine tuned the proposal and since late April have been engaging in public outreach to educate the residents on what is involved.
The Board of Education asserts that maintenance costs and a 2% tax levy cap have made it difficult to carry out the day-to-day work and make necessary upgrades and changes to the school district which they need. Through a referendum, the money could be raised through a bond and, with potential state aid debt service they believe could be as high as 40% for eligible projects, the bond would be reduced and the burden on Hawthorne taxpayers thereby lessened. The bonds would be paid back over 20 years and the presentation asserted that taxpayers would be looking at a tax impact of about $6.91 a month, or $82.91 a year, based off an average Hawthorne home assessment of $182,222 should the $24.4 million referendum pass.
"We want to improve the conditions of our schools," Spirito said. "We'll be reducing the impact on the taxpayer by doing it now. We would try to make this seamless. If we do this work on our own, it will take us a lot longer, but the benefit of doing it through a referendum is we can get 40% back as debt service on the projects. We have done quite a bit on our own, but we've paid full price. You only get the debt service back through a referendum."
While the referendum proposed is for $24,388,000, the presentation said that if the state aid debt servicing is approved, it could cut that bill down to about $14,819,000. "We started with a facility audit and had meetings on top of meetings and work sessions on the Board level. We've already submitted our paperwork to the Department of Education, we've submitted all our budgetary estimates," Spirito said. "With their approval, they will determine exactly what we would get that debt service back on. Our architect feels confident that just about every project is eligible for debt service, but we won't know officially until the state approves it and they will let us know."
Spirito said that the Board worked hard to target the priorities for the school system to minimize the cost for the referendum. He cited a number of improvements that had been implemented so far already, but that more work needed to be done. "We are seeing savings from the LED lighting and the boiler upgrades. We are seeing savings, which is great, we want to continue doing that work. We have a lot of interior painting, a lot of exterior door replacements throughout the district, security upgrades: we are required to put in a new window film on what the state considers to be vulnerable areas. We've done some of that work."
Chamberlin referred to the heating systems as one of several potential sources of savings in the long-term. "The boilers we have are just sucking up gas," Chamberlin said. "We're running these big boilers like at Lincoln Middle School, they would be replaced because it is a hot water system. Now boilers are tiny things, they are much more efficient, and the operating costs are a lot lower."
"These are capital improvements that have to be addressed," Clavijo said, "and with the referendum you're addressing them with a 40% rebate. You can't get away from these projects so you might as well get a rebate on them."
Asbestos removal in certain parts of the schools would be among the projects addressed.
Spirito said he had met with the Mayor and Finance Committee and had extended the invitation to the other councilmen to review the referendum proposal. Some of the proposals would be upgrades for STEM labs, science labs, media centers, makerspace renovations, performing arts, music, and visual arts. Technological investment for students would be addressed as well. "We are proposing a one-to-one initiative, where everybody from sixth grade through twelve would have a Chromebook device."
Structural and aesthetic work would be carried out to improve areas which the community uses. "We would also do some upgrades to our core spaces, our gyms and cafeterias. We are looking to air condition the auditorium."
The pictures of the proposed interior upgrades compared current run-down and old facilities, showing damaged furniture, decades-old science workstations, and cluttered arts and media centers, with sleek, vibrant, modernized alternatives that could be funded if voters approve.
Interested residents can view an itemized breakdown of projects for Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Lincoln Middle School, and Hawthorne High School by visiting the website here.
If the referendum passed, the Board of Education would be eager to get work underway quickly. The bulk of the work would be done when school was not in session and during the summers, so as not to disrupt and interfere with students in class.
"We are meeting with people to educate them on the project," Spirito said, referring to a series of forums held in town to explain to the public what the referendum entails. On April 30, the first forum was held through the Washington School PTO, since then the presentations have been held with the Lincoln Middle School PTO, HHS Band Parents, Roosevelt PTO, Jefferson PTO, and the Hawthorne High School PTO. Another will be held on Wednesday, May 22, through SEPAC at the Louis Bay 2nd Library at 7:00 p.m. A "Community Event" is scheduled to be held at the Volunteer Ambulance Corps building on June 8 between 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.
Spirito said that tours would be arranged as well for interested members of the public to show them conditions that need to be addressed in person.
"Hopefully we can pass this and get the work done," Spirito said.
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