The Brick Township Board of Education, facing dire financial straits due to state funding cuts, is considering placing a spending question to a public vote, however officials say they have not yet made up their minds on the matter.
The board voted unanimously Thursday night to allocate up to $25,000 to Netta Architects to design referendum specifications. The same firm was paid to develop a previous referendum, which failed in 2018 by 39 votes. That question would have allowed the district to borrow $12.5 million for security upgrades; the substantive nature of the new potential referendum question has not been revealed.
“We have not seen it, we have just talked about possible things,” said Board President Stephanie Wohlrab. “We are getting a committee together.”
That committee, which will likely be made up of board members and school district officials, has yet to convene. But there are scant clues as to what a referendum would look like – the $25,000 allocation comports with the price for Netta to design a spending plan that would be over $10 million.
The board is considering numerous ways to upgrade its facilities, including a self-funded energy savings plan known as an ESIP, where reduced energy costs would be used to pay for new, efficient systems that would be installed. The tax-neutral plan would not reduce spending, but could conceivably lead to the installation of new industrial equipment, windows or other energy-related facilities projects that would pay for themselves.
Asking taxpayers to approve additional bonding is, likewise, an option for the board.
“There are a lot of things going on and this may, or may not, be a piece of that,” Wohlrab said.
The possibility of a new referendum question did not sit well with some residents who attended Thursday night’s meeting.
“Before you go out for a pre-referendum, you have to get your financial house in order,” said Walter Campbell. “You need and operational and financial audit.”
The current board majority promised such an audit during the 2015 election but never conducted one, saying more pressing matters had to be dealt with. But with numerous changes coming to the district, conducting such a study is another option under consideration.
“I think, right now, we have a new superintendent coming in in March and it’s a conversation we’ve had,” Wohlrab said, addressing the question of a district-wide audit.
“This is a joke in the public,” said resident Vic Fanelli, who lambasted the board for potentially hiring Netta, a politically influential architectural firm, to design the referendum.
James Edwards, the business administrator, said prices for design of referendum specifications were solicited from two firms – Netta and The Musial Group – that are pre-approved as architects of record for the district. If the referendum comes to fruition and is approved, the construction of whatever improvements it funds would have to be publicly bid by law.
Wohlrab reiterated an oft-made point in the recently trying financial times for the school district: any viable option is under consideration for funding.
“This isn’t 100 percent yet, but if we decide, after we reconvene the committee and have some discussions … everything is on the table and we have to look at everything,” she said.