Ewing Township voters on Oct. 2 will have the opportunity to cast their ballots on a $59.3 million bond referendum to pay for vital repairs and improvements to township schools.
The referendum is for the first major bond issue to be proposed by the district since it built Parkway Elementary School almost 25 years ago.
The theme of the referendum —One Community, One Vision, One Vote—reflects the school district’s goal of involving and informing the entire community about process.
The referendum, if approved, would not impact taxes due to a number of bonds that have been paid off or are nearing that point, school officials say.
According to calculations, the overall average tax impact over the next four years would be a savings of $185.
For a list of projects, see the graphic on Page 8. Not listed on the graphic, but included in teh referendum, is one of the most-requested projects—improving student parking, traffic flow and access to EHS and adding 200 parking spots at the school.
The district plans to do this by moving the tennis courts to the Antheil Auxiliary Athletic Complex.
Ewing Observer Editor Bill Sanservino sat down with superintendent Michael Nitti, district business administrator Dennis Nettleton and School Board president Karen McKeon to talk about the referendum. Below is an lightly edited version of the interview.
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Can you explain to me the importance of this referendum? Why is necessary and why now?
Karen McKeon: Because of the financial timing of it. We’ve had debt that’s dropping off, and we didn’t raise taxes this year, and taxes went down last year. We’ve known that these facility upgrades needed to be done. We wanted to time it so we weren’t continually adding increasing taxes on the community. We wanted to be respectful. So by looking at the numbers, this is the time to do it.
Also, these projects that are in the referendum can only receive state funding through the referendum process. So if we didn’t do the referendum we wouldn’t be getting any backing from state funding.
Michael Nitti: I think our theme really embraces what Karen is saying as well: “One Community, One Vision One Goal.” We spent a lot of time thinking with our facilities committee and our board and its goal setting about the next step for the district.
We did a couple of detailed demographic reports to see if we had to build on them. We feel like we’re in a good position with our five schools and our one academy. Talking to our stakeholders, the community wants safer schools, they want healthier schools, they want modern schools.
In the end, a school is like your house. You have to put money in and take care of it. Make sure it’s a great place for kids to go to school.
We met with just about anyone you can think of when it comes to the projects that are included in this referendum. Stakeholders, parents, groups, unions, our employees and community groups.
That’s what we mean by “One Vision,” because everything we put in there is what people want to see in their schools.
Some of our neighboring communities, I think, are going to have to go back out (to referendum) in a couple of years. We really feel we can we can do this with this one referendum. We can take our schools, and we can turn them into modern, safer, healthier places for our kids to go to school.
So this isn’t a situation where you are asking for money now and then will be asking for more a few years down the road?
MN: We truly believe it. That’s why we’re emphasizing the “One Vote.” To set up our schools for the next generation of students.
Dennis Nettleton: That’s the pattern of how Ewing has managed these type of projects in the past. Going back, 25 years was the last time we really did one (a referendum) that was building related.
For this referendum, we looked at everything. We looked at if we did everything we wanted to do, what we would do, and then we just looked at the things that were the most critical, the most important to be done right now.
Your roofing, your HVAC systems, some few critical things that we heard from our constituents and everybody that we talked to. Like parking at the high school being very important, and air conditioning.
MN: People want schools with modern heating, and cooling filtration systems. That’s something where there’s been a tremendous change in the last 20 to 25 years.
DN: Our air conditioning systems are over 20 years old in a lot of cases, and building automation is a big thing in this referendum. What that essentially means is a programmable thermostat.
We can do that in chunks throughout the district now, but there’s some machines where we still have to go up on the roof and fiddle with them to make changes. By giving our technicians the ability to do it from a laptop or a phone, it changes the game, allows us to save money on energy, allows us to be more efficient, cool the buildings better, getting things that can talk together with technology. It’s a big deal.
MN: Karen already talked about the favorable financial factors, including our debt service dropping off. Dennis alludes to these projects that make our schools more sustainable in the future, saving us money because it’d be far more cost effective than what we have now.
With Parkway being the last school you built almost 25 years ago, there’s probably not a lot of modern technology in the buildings.
DN: In terms of our students and technology, I think certainly we’ve done a nice job.
As for infrastructure, another thing we’re focusing on is standardizing equipment. I always like to point at the high school’s boilers. They basically look like a big train engine.
The boilers they make today, instead of one or two gigantic boilers like we have now, you’re getting about five or six the size of a hot water heater.
Right now I’ve got one type of boiler at this school, a different type of boiler at the other school, so my technicians have to be experts on multiple types of boilers.
If we can standardize it, not only can we make our technicians more efficient, we can stock the shelves with repair parts so if we’re down, we’re only down for a couple hours instead of a day or two.
KM: (to Nettleton) You’ve been dealing with extremes. One classroom is ice-cold, and you go two doors down and that one is overheated.
DN: Yes, and a lot of times it’s because you have two pieces of competing equipment that can’t talk to each other. By creating one type of backbone architecture—an open system where any piece of equipment can talk to sort of like a control hub—it’s going to make a lot of difference.
Karen talked about getting state aid to help pay for the improvements. How much state aid are you looking at?
DN: They’ve authorized up to 40 percent in debt service aid. That’s about $21.65 million. But again, that’s debt service aid.
They’re giving us that money to service the debt. If we were to have saved all of our money, we would be paying the full amount. For example, if we saved it in our capital reserve and then tried to do these projects without bonding them, they would have cost us a lot more. So it is very advantageous to get that state money, because $60 million costs you $39 million.
MN: It’s really harder to take care of our buildings now because we have a 2 percent budgetary cap. So to do these type of projects is almost impossible considering the current limitations that we have placed on our school district.
So is the debt service completely outside the 2 percent cap?
DN: Yes, completely separate.
Now one of the fortunate things for us, as Karen mentioned, is that we have that debt dropoff from the older debt.
If you add up all the debt dropoffs plus the increase from this referendum, it is a net saving against the 2016-’17 school year on debt service. So people on average will be paying about $185 less for debt service than they did prior. If you just focus on that debt portion of it, basically it’s neutral.
KM: We’ve tried to be transparent from the beginning. Going out speaking to community groups and school groups. We don’t want anyone to be surprised that this is coming. We used the website, we’ve had updates, we used the Observer Good News section. We’ve really tried to get the information out there, and anyone who has asked us to talk to them we have gone to them.
MN: It’s really been two years in the planning.
What has the district done to involve people in the decision-making process and then get the word out to everybody? Because what you don’t want is people turning around and saying “I didn’t know anything about this,” at the last minute.
MN: Again, going back to the whole “One Vision” part of our motto, we met with just about anyone, including some well-attended board meetings, to go through the planning process.
You name a stakeholder and we did our best to meet with them to go through the planning process. Over the past couple of months, we’ve really kicked off our communications campaign.
We’ve been at our school functions, an we spoke to community groups. Dennis spoke to the Green Team, and I just spoke to the Fraternal Order of Police. We’ll also have a booth at Ewing Community Day.
Obviously social media has been a big part of it as well. We’re trying to get as much as we can. We set up a Facebook account for the referendum. Throughout this whole process, from day one of planning all the way up to Oct. 2, we’ve been trying to be extremely accessible, and visible, and communicate as effectively as we can.