SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – Board of Education President Dr. Stephen Parker took to the podium at the April 11 meeting to explain, and in part defend, spending $272,000 to renovate the district office building on Blackhorse Lane.
“At the last meeting, there were some questions and some concerns about the renovations at Blackhorse Lane,” Dr. Parker said. “I thought it would be important for me to go back and review the process and see what was done.”
After leasing the office building at 231 Blackhorse Lane for a decade, the district spent $4.8 million to buy the facility instead of paying $306,000 per year to rent it.
The administration said at the time that it was the best use of the money to buy the building outright instead of leasing it in order to have an asset in the end, instead of just rent receipts.
Late last year, the board voted to approve renovations to the three-story facility in order to use portions of the building that were closed off to the district during the rental period.
Those renovations included a conference area on the second floor, a waiting area and what could be described as a “kitchenette” on the third floor between Superintendent Dr. Jerry Jellig’s office and the office of his secretary Madeline Daniels.
The total cost for the project was just over $272,000, according to documents obtained from the district.
“Part of the board’s responsibilities include maintaining facilities for the educational program,” Dr. Parker said. “The facilities don’t make the program, but good facilities make the program easier.”
Dr. Parker said the district needs to maintain a total of 14 different buildings including schools, central office and transportation.
He said the district spent $20 million last year on maintaining all of those buildings, athletic fields and grounds.
The district also sets aside money in the budget each year for capital projects that need to be done throughout the district.
Those projects are developed by the board’s facilities subcommittee, and then taken to the budget committee to be “rolled into” the proposed budget for the year, he said.
“They are (then) approved (as part of the full budget) by the county superintendent and by the board,” he said. “There is a lot of planning that goes into them.”
Dr. Parker said that the renovations were part of four projects in the 2015-16 budget that also included replacing the high school tennis courts, renovating the stage area at the Deans school for instructional space and giving the physical education department more storage space.
“(The office renovations) were probably under planning the longest,” Dr. Parker said. “Back with (former Superintendent) Dr. (Gary) McCartney, this board sat down and looked at options.”
He said that the district opted at that time to purchase the building as opposed to finding other space in the district because the owner was interested in selling.
“We decided it was most fiscally prudent to purchase the building,” he said.
Costs for all four projects were estimated at $1.2 million, and were approved last year when the budget was adopted in April, he said.
During the year, however, the board voted three times to use a total of $169,000 from the Capital Reserve Fund for the renovations, a sort of savings account the district maintains for such projects.
The renovations were initially estimated to cost around $250,000, but came in around $23,000 more due to the actual work needed to be completed on the site, including maintenance costs to get the bathrooms on the second floor working after not being used for the 10 years the district rented the building, he said.
According to documentation obtained from the district, the renovation cost breakdown included ; $13,275 for architectural plans, $830 to install the SMART panel and window shades, $5,230 to install fiber cables, About $35,000 for the audio/video system, $57,823 for carpentry work on the second and third floors, $22,585 for modifications to the heating and air conditioning system, $7,500 for the bathroom work, another $10,00 for more heating and air conditioning modifications, $10,537 for carpet and tile including installation, $948 for Broadloom carpet and installation, $2,593 for an Epson computer projector, $46,176 for tables and chairs in the conference room, $5,565 for two couches, coffee table and end tables, $7,600 for a removable white wall system, $4,089 for a SMART panel flat video display, $5,425 for window shades and another $850 for a fiber patch cable and a computer part.
Also according to documentation from the district, the board’s facilities subcommittee met two times in 2015 on the renovations.
The first meeting of the committee, which included the following board members, Dr. Parker, Peter St. Vincent and Barry Nathanson, took place on Feb. 12, 2015 prior to the board adopting the budget that funded the renovations.
A brief agenda of that meeting lists a discussion of possible capital projects including the renovations.
The next meeting of that committee, according to documentation, took place on August 19, 2015 with both Nathanson and St. Vincent meeting with Dr. Jellig and Business Administrator Anthony Tonzini in the new conference room at Blackhorse Lane.
According to minutes of that meeting, Dr. Jellig showed the members the room on the second floor, which was still under construction and estimated to be finished by October.
During the meeting, Tonzini also informed the committee that the other three capital projects were “on or near” schedule for completion, according to the document.
Dr. Parker said that included in these costs was about $10,000 for the renovations to the third floor of the building, which plans filed with the township and receipts from the floor covering vendors refer to as a “kitchenette.”
“These are the costs,” Dr. Parker said. “As you can see it went a little over our initial budget.”
St. Vincent, who has experience with commercial construction, said during the April 11 meeting that the costs were not out of line with the type of work being done and that he actually thought the engineering costs were “a good deal.”
Dr. Parker said the conference room renovations were something the board “had on its mind for quite some time,” and was part of an overall strategy to better use the space.
“There is nothing (here) the board is trying to hide,” he said.
Dr. Jellig said the new conference area was “an absolute gift to the faculty and leadership team,” and is used every day to help the children of the district.
He also said that he felt responsible for not clarifying the need for creating that space by not “communicating it clearly enough, often enough or loudly enough.”
“I bear responsibility for that,” Dr. Jellig said. “If you haven’t seen our teachers collaborate in that space, it is exactly what we intended.”
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