Education

Newton’s Merriam Expansion Referendum Results are In...

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Credits: Danielle Francisco
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Public section during the board of education meeting on the night of the referendum vote Credits: Danielle Francisco
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floor plans of the Merriam Expansion idea done by EI Associates. Credits: Danielle Francisco
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NEWTON, NJ— The voters of Newton have failed to pass the bond referendum that would allow improvements to the school facilities.  The issue failed 959 no votes to 238 yes votes as of 8:30 p.m. tonight, an 80 percent landslide against the idea of expanding at Merriam Avenue School.

Out of the 4,781 registered voters within the six precincts, 1,201, equaling a 25 percent turnout cast their votes on Tuesday in the special election. 

The item on the ballot, expanding Merriam Avenue to fit kindergarten through eighth grade, came about after a two year long process which was conducted by the Newton Board of Education.

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The process involved countless discussions at meetings. Community input and comments were solicited at meetings and through surveys.  Multiple options on how to deal with the aging Halsted Middle school were created, debated and eventually honed to the one calling for the expansion of Merriam Avenue School and closing of Halsted Middle School.

“The Board of Education has worked on the proposed referendum for over two years,” Board of Education President, Stella Dunn said. “We sought out public input on multiple occasions to craft the referendum that was put forth for the public and while we can say that we sought public input, it is sad to say that we had very few members of the public come out to our meetings on a regular basis or answered surveys that were sent out. The board put forth the best plan we could given the input and information we had.”

 “I think this is an absolute failure on the part of the state of New Jersey,” Newton Superintendent Dr. Ken Greene said. “The conditions that we have in this town do not lend themselves to being able to have any kind of fair vote on doing something with our facilities. I think that the state has to be taken to task. Forty years of not getting sufficient state aid, being 4 million dollars short on state aid on a yearly basis is absolutely impacting our ability to get the facilities that we believe we need for our children and I will offer to all of the folks who voted, whether they voted for the referendum or against the referendum, I hope will come out in strong a force ready to challenge the state and get our fair share of funding because I think that is the only way we change the game in terms of our tax situation from a school standpoint.

“From my stand point I am kind of fired up to get back to getting at the state to say we need our fair share of funding because until we get that we simply don’t have a fair situation, we don’t have a fair shot.”

Newton Mayor Wayne Levante has publicly spoken against the school district’s plan, the board of education members and district administrators.  After the results were in Levante responded to a request for a comment.

“The residents of Newton made the right choice by voting no,” Levante said.  “As I mentioned previously in multiple venues, the plan presented was incomplete, subpar and would have been disastrous for Newton and our future.

“Members of the Newton Council had multiple meetings with BOE members and Dr. Greene articulating concerns and trying to help develop a plan that could possibly work.  All suggestions were ignored.

At this point,” Levante continued, “I am uncertain of what will happen next.  The BOE’s and Dr. Greene’s agenda and vision DO NOT [Levante’s emphasis] align with an overwhelming majority of the members of our community.  Based on my previous interactions with board President Stella Dunn, other board members and administration, I do not anticipate them easily conforming to the will and desires of the people.  This is a great concern to me."

The Newton mayor posted similar comments on his facebook page. 

The vote was a hot topic on social media with residents posting about the results; some discussed the voter turnout being awful, some were happy about the decision and others were not so pleased.

“This is an awful voter turnout. Whether your vote was yes or no, only 25% [sic] of registered voters came out” said one Facebook post, while another commented “I personally couldn’t be happier with this decision,” and yet another Facebook post said “I do hope a new proposal in the future will satisfy the majority of our resident’s concerns. I am so disappointed in this outcome. A new educational facility IS a selling point to attract young families to this area.”

Board member Ed Caffrey commented during the board of education meeting when the results were announced, “I don’t think we should look at this as a failure, I think we should just look ahead and move on and still continue to do what’s right for our kids.”

Public comments made at the end of the meeting tonight included a heartfelt apology from Newton resident Linda Gianni.

Gianni said, “I wanted to say I am sorry about the referendum, I know you put a lot of work into it and I know it is disappointing and that you had the best interest of the district, the town, the students, and the taxpayers and I am sorry you didn’t have any support.”

The second public comment had to do with what the board’s next step was going to be moving forward and if they had a plan if the referendum ended up not passing.  Greene answered on behalf of the board.

“We would need to take a step back and assess where we are. We talked throughout each step along the way.  We’ve talked about a number of different options, the first one we sort of centered around was for the option of a new middle school and that was not going to fit within a budget.  The second option was the one that we had the referendum about and we heard what the taxpayers feel about that. I don’t know that the board concluded with any other option of wanting to move something else forward.

“Any other option of wanting to move something else forward would probably require a referendum of some sort, so I suspect we will get back to thinking about the long range view; is there a different option that we want to pursue now, are the options that were already on the table ones that need some time and effort.

“As I alluded to before a major stumbling block that we had is simply that this town is paying 4 million dollars in taxes every year beyond what’s the fair share and I think until that get resolved, it’s difficult to think about a referendum. But we may think about it differently and at the very least we do have some projects that we can consider moving forward with that are smaller that can continue to move our facilities in a positive direction.

“So I think all of those are possibilities at this point. Probably just us taking a step back, digesting the news and then being ready to move forward, but there was no planning and discussion of what would be the next steps if it didn’t pass, we were going to wait, put our efforts into this, and if it didn’t, we would have to take it from there.”

The Newton Board of Education will hold its next meeting on Tuesday, October 17, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Board of Education office located on Trinity Street, public comments are always welcome.

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