By Anastasia Marchese
In April of last year Chatham residents were asked to consider a $24.8 million dollar ballot referendum designed to update the schools’ facilities and to build new spaces for a variety of uses. The ballot issue was rejected so the Board of Education and administration were sent back to the drawing table to reconsider what Chatham residents want to see done in their district.
Written in his “Superintendent’s Newsletter: September 2016,” Dr. Michael LaSusa, superintendent of schools explained, “Over the past eighteen months, our Board of Education and district administration have worked to elicit feedback from our community about prospective infrastructure projects, collaborated with district architects about the projects garnering the most support from the community, and submitted the draft project proposals to the Department of Education for approval. This lengthy process will culminate in a referendum vote to be held on Sept. 27 for six projects that the district believes to be vital to our infrastructure and to meet the needs of current and future students.”
Breaking the referendum issues up into six separate projects can help voters to understand the impact of each referendum and choose to support, or not, the proposed work of each.
On the school district website is a short video in which LaSusa explains each project and the impact it will have on the students and community.
One of the impetuses driving the need for renovations at this time is the rise in enrollment.
“Since the April 2005 referendum, the district enrollment has steadily climbed,” says LaSusa in his newsletter, “The increase in students has stretched our facilities and limited the district’s flexibility to optimally run programs. In addition, it has forced the district to divert investment away from critical infrastructure and into additional classroom space that has been added in incremental steps to handle the increased number of students. At the current time, there is an immediate need for more classroom space at the elementary level and improvements in critical infrastructure. This referendum seeks to address these needs.”
One of the factors driving increased enrollment may be the high standards and various accolades that the district has received. According to the district website, “Chatham High School has enjoyed some positive publicity this summer, with both Newsweek and New Jersey Monthly Magazine ranking it as the top public high school in the state.”
Having schools that consistently rank as the highest in the state, can attract new people to the community.
The first referendum on the ballot is the Chatham High School Auditorium Renovation, which is estimated to have a net cost to the district of $2,100,000. The auditorium was built in the early 1970’s and in addition to being outdated in appearance, it is also not ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant, and needs new carpet. All of these concerns would be rectified by the referendum.
The second on the ballot is the Chatham Middle School Auditorium Renovation. Built in 1958, this space is in need of updating as well as the removal of its current asbestos flooring. A new sound system, a new lighting system and a new ventilation system would be installed, as well as to bringing it to ADA compliance for both the audience and performers.
The third is the Chatham Middle School STEAM Addition which would convert a wing of the building into a modern S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) facility. Art classrooms would also be renovated under this proposal.
The renovations to the Cougar Field at the High School is the fourth referendum, with a proposed new walking path, ADA-compliant bleachers installed, replacement of the sound system, installation of new parking bumpers, as well as a new concession stand and press box. The complex dates to the 1970’s and is still mostly original. The macadam pavement also needs to be replaced.
Fifth on the list of referendums is the Milton Avenue School’s four classroom addition. According to LaSusa’s September letter, “There is currently insufficient space in our three elementary schools. In each building, certain programs are forced to share classrooms or take place in non-classroom areas. For multiple years now, our enrollment has exceeded demographic projections. This year, our enrollment is at its highest point in the history of the district. Building four classrooms at MAS will provide more flexibility to move stand-alone programs from other buildings to MAS, thus opening space in all elementary schools.”
The last referendum is for partial roof replacements that need to be done at multiple schools.
All of these projects qualify for state funds and if approved would have a net cost of $12,048,642 to Chatham residents. The tax cost estimates to residents are based on a 20-year bond at a 3.25 percent interest rate. If all six ballot initiatives are approved, the cost works out to be about a monthly tax increase for a home assessed at $700,00 of less than $12 a month.
The breakdown for each project is clearly listed on the district website in the September edition of the superintendent letter.
The voting will take place on Sept. 27 and each voter should receive a mailing detailing the items to be considered. The district webpage is www.chatham-nj.org.