“It’s not over.”
Those were the words Mayor Randy Brown had for Evesham residents fighting to keep Evans Elementary School open despite a recent vote from the township’s board of education to close the school starting with the 2017–2018 school year.
Brown and other township officials used the March 22 meeting of the Evesham Township Council to discuss other ways the district could save money outside of closing a school and the negative economic impact they believed the Evans closure could have across town.
Brown said the school district had several other resources that could be used to find additional funds, and specifically pointed to potential redevelopment of the district’s administration building on South Maple Avenue, which already sits within a township rehabilitation zone.
At a past council meeting, Brown and other Evesham officials said there was nothing wrong with the property to their knowledge, and it could very well be used for townhouses or other residential properties.
However, Brown said when township officials met with the school district’s administration regarding the issue, those officials said they didn’t believe there was a real willingness on the part of the administration to seriously examine redevelopment of the administration building.
Brown said the township would continue to push the issue regardless.
“We believe the administration building is an asset and is something that should really be reviewed, and I believe the school board should really take a significant look at it regardless to what the administration says,” Brown said.
Another district asset discussed at the meeting was a 19-acre parcel of land the district owns on Harvest Road behind the AMC movie theater.
Township planner Leah Furey said maps from the state Department of Environmental Protection show minimal wetlands on the property, and currently only a 4.18-acre easement for PSE&G runs along the parcel for power lines.
With that in mind, Furey said if the district were interested in developing the property, she believed the township would be more than happy to discuss the possibility of rezoning the land for residential properties.
If that were to happen, Brown and Furey said the property could be worth anywhere from $1.5 million to $2.5 million.
Brown also called on real-estate broker Mark McKenna of Pat McKenna Realtors to speak regarding the Evans closure.
To underline how quickly a school closure can affect property values, McKenna said he already had clients back out of two deals for properties near Evans. McKenna also noted the loss of equity in those who already own homes.
“The rumor mill can affect values, and people won’t touch certain spots until everything is solidified,” McKenna said.
Township manager Tom Czerniecki also said a decline in property values could lead to more residents filing and winning tax appeals, which could hurt the municipality’s operating budget, as tax appeals are paid for through municipal surplus funds.
“It’s going to affect our budget,” Brown said.
BOE member Sandy Student, who was one of the votes against the Evans closure, also spoke at the council meeting. Student said he heard a for-profit entity was interested in renting Evans, and in that case, the district would be forced to start paying property taxes on the property.
Student also said since 2008, the district’s health-care costs had increased from $8.2 million to $12.7 million, which was higher than many districts in the area. Student said that might also be an area to examine when looking for potential savings.
Overall, Brown said the decision to close Evans isn’t final until approved by the state Department of Education, and he urged the Evesham BOE to reserve its decision at any upcoming meetings.
“The school board can vote at every single meeting on this, they could vote again at the April 28 meeting … and they can change their vote at the next one after that and the next one after that,” Brown said.