Board eyes December special election for proposed referendum

Moorestown Township’s Board of Education has shifted gears on its upcoming “Space, Security, Sustainability” bond referendum. In May, the board put forth a $25.6 million proposal that it planned to put to a vote in November. After a summer spent taking a long look at the referendum, the board is proposing putting two questions to a vote in December. 

As presented at the most recent board meeting, the first question encompasses $22.8 million in updates to all schools in the district. The local tax impact would be around $136.46 for the average assessed home valued at $454,032. The second question includes an additional $3.3 million in updates, which would have an additional local tax impact of $27.02 per year on top of the $136.46, if approved. 

Board of Education Vice President David Weinstein said, over the summer, the board created a referendum committee, which was tasked with taking a look at the referendum and seeing where it could make some adjustments. The committee membership currently includes Weinstein and fellow board members Lauren Romano, Kathy Mullin, Mick Weeks and some of the district’s administrative staff.

Weinstein said the conversations around a referendum started more than a year ago when they began talking about how they can develop their “educational processes” differently. Things snowballed from there. 

“If we’re going to make changes to how we operate as a district, we should also be looking at what else do we need to do as a district to protect our current capital,” Weinstein said.

The committee met twice over the summer during which it decided the referendum would be best served if broken into two questions. While the board took no action on questions last Tuesday night, Weinstein presented the committee’s proposal as to what each question should encompass. 

The proposed work at each of the elementary schools is largely the same with each getting interior renovations, HVAC construction and electrical work. Moorestown High School will receive similar updates, but Burlington County has also mandated that the next the district does any construction work at MHS, they make Bridgeboro Road’s walkways ADA compliant. For that reason, the district must build an eight-foot-wide path to bring the road up to code that will come at an estimated $1.2 million cost to taxpayers. 

As proposed, William Allen Middle School will receive the most work with the potential addition of 10 classrooms to accommodate moving third grade from the local elementary schools into WAMS.

While the district’s overall elementary population is about the same as it was 10 year ago, the special education population has grown, and with it the way the district utilizes its space, according to Superintendent Scott McCartney. He said there is equipment and caps on how many students can be in a special education classroom that further restrict their space usage. Additionally, he said the district also utilizes space for STEAM and other programs that may not have been in place 10 years ago. The combination has left little room to grow programming, which is why they’ve proposed the 10 additional classrooms. 

The proposed second question includes upgrades that the board thinks are important and would like to do but are not as time-sensitive if they don’t get passed, according to Weinstein. The second question would finance a replacement of the 1970s lockers at WAMS, a full-sized gym addition at WAMS, a MAC parking lot extension at MHS and interior renovations at the Central Administration Building. However, if the first question fails, the second question automatically fails as well and would rule out these updates. 

Board member Mark Villanueva inquired about putting security as a standalone first question. Weinstein explained that their bond council told them that putting a $1 million standalone security question isn’t something districts typically do. McCartney expanded further saying the security improvements are mostly about “expansions and filling voids” and not necessarily about creating something that doesn’t exist. The nearly $1 million proposed security updates mostly entail updating some security cameras and installing additional ones throughout the elementary and middle schools. 

Former board member Dimitri Schneiberg said, in May, the board talked a lot about security and space, but at last Tuesday night’s meeting, the narrative shifted, and the bulk of the conversation was around capital improvements. He said this isn’t a “Space, Security, Sustainability” referendum if the security upgrades are largely just improving some cameras. 

“If the school board wants to put out a capital improvement bond referendum for $23 million dollars, [that’s] perfectly fine; call it what it is,” Schneiberg said. 

Resident Cheryl Makopoulos took similar issue with the referendum’s name. 

“Seeing this for the first time as a taxpayer, I have to agree with the perception that this is a capital improvements referendum that hasn’t really been positioned that way to this point,” Makopoulos said. 

She said the name indicates that equal weight would be given to space, security and sustainability, but that’s not what is proposed. 

Weinstein said the district’s architect is currently getting submissions ready to go to the state Department of Education. For that reason, questions won’t be ready in time for a November vote. He said the board is now looking to formalize questions by its October meeting and approve a special election at its November meeting. 

The aim is to have the election on Tuesday, Dec. 10. Holding the special election separate from the general election in November could cost the district around $14,000, according to Weinstein. Villanueva suggested holding off a year and shooting for November 2020 to save taxpayer dollars and allow more time to take a look at the referendum. Weinstein said the board would take that suggestion under consideration.

The next board of education meeting will take place on Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. in William Allen Middle School. To view the district’s full bond referendum presentation, visit http://www.mtps.com/referendum. Anyone with questions about the referendum can email mtpsreferendum@mtps.com.