Last year, pieces of the ceiling at Lalor Elementary School fell on risers where students had been standing just moments prior.

A clerical error has delayed a vote on a package of school repairs and improvements that the district had spent months framing as critical for student safety and security.

The Hamilton Board of Education voted Dec. 19 to postpone the special election to a to-be-determined date, just five weeks before the scheduled Jan. 24 vote. The school board pushed the election at the recommendation of interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra, who had spent the last six months promoting the urgent need to approve the $53.7M referendum.

The Hamilton Board of Education filed its intent to hold a special election with the Mercer County and Hamilton clerks on Nov. 17—more than a week early. Yet, for reasons officials with the school district and clerks’ offices do not know, a mandated public notice did not appear in a local newspaper until two weeks later, 54 days before the election and one day too late, per state law. The school district could appeal to the state to allow the election, but officials were concerned a waiver could create potential for the results of the election to be challenged.

Instead, the Board of Education opted to reschedule. School board president Tony Celentano said the board will determine this month when the election will be held, most likely March 14, Sept. 26 or Nov. 7. School referendum votes in New Jersey may only be held on the date of the November general election or on one of four predetermined special election dates set by the state.

Celentano said the referendum probably would not be held in March because the Board would have to rush after its reorganization meeting Jan. 4 to once again beat the state deadlines. Ficarra has suggested the Sept. 26 date as the best alternative. But, with a $30,000 pricetag for special elections, some on the school board have figured waiting the extra six weeks until Nov. 7 general election would be worth the money it would save the district. There would be minimal cost to the district if the referendum was held during the general election.

Still, the consideration of a nine- or 10-month postponement clashes with the urgency with which Ficarra has spent the last half-year selling the referendum to the community. At press time, Ficarra still planned to hold a town hall meeting Jan. 17 at the Reynolds Middle School auditorium to speak more about the referendum and take any questions the public may have.

The $53.7M package would address various safety, security and infrastructure issues at the township’s 24 school buildings. The funds would be used to upgrade security and accessibility for people with disabilities, and replace or repair windows, roofs, ceilings, pipes, walls and other infrastructure at school buildings. No work will be done to the district office or its warehouse facilities.

A “yes” vote would increase taxes by $51 per year—or $4.25 per month—for the average home in the township (valued at $213,900 after last year’s reassessment).

Hamilton Post senior community editor Rob Anthes sat down with Ficarra Dec. 6—before the vote had been postponed—at the district office on Park Avenue to discuss the referendum and its importance to the schools and the community at-large.

 

Hamilton Post: Tell me a bit about the referendum.

Thomas Ficarra: The referendum looked at just the highest priorities. We were looking at a former assessment, and we revisited the entire scope with the basis that the highest priorities were for student and staff safety, security and the most critical infrastructure needs. We’re going to focus on cost effectiveness.

There are no frills. There is nothing in here that is a wish or a hope or a dream that we don’t need. This is safety, security and critical infrastructure only. We started at $220M, pared it down and pared it down again to the essential $53M referendum.

Windows, what we looked at are windows that are operationally failing, unrepairable with no safety glass or safety glass film. The difference between a window with no safety glass and a window with safety glass is the difference between a window you could put your hand through and one that will hold. If you think about dropping a glass on the floor, you have shards of glass that are very dangerous. Same thing happens if a kid accidentally punches through a window or falls into a window. Very dangerous situation. If you ride by an accident if someone hit the windshield, the windshield is together. You can’t see through it anymore, but it didn’t break into shards of glass.

Any window that was made after the late 1980s was made with safety glass. To not have safety glass in all of those schools—not only do they not have safety glass but they are operationally failing and they’re unrepairable. We’ll repair the whole unit.

If they are repairable and they are in working condition, then we will go to Step Two, which is a cost saver, and put a film on the inside of the glass. What that film does is act as an adhesive, even if you break the window, everything is held together by the film that is on the window. It’s as effective as safety glass.

It’s a major portion of the referendum. I have two grandchildren, and we babyproofed our house. I think that’s indicative of just about anybody who has children in their house. I think of the residents of Hamilton who babyproof their houses but then send them to school, and assume the classrooms the children are sitting in have safety glass in them when they don’t. So, we don’t want school to be the most dangerous place you send your child.

Roofing, we have seven roofs that are out of warranty and leaking. We would like to replace all of them. That’s a $6.4M cost.

I just recently put a roof on my house. I did it begrudgingly, but I couldn’t have my roof leaking because I knew it was unhealthy for me to live in and structurally deteriorating my house. This is the same thing. This is a necessity. These roofs are leaking, and they are deteriorating ceilings. They are deteriorating structures. And they could be causing moisture problems that could cause health hazards in the future. This is not a wish or a dream. It is a necessity that children go to school with roofs that are leakproof.

We have been repairing several roofs around the district over time. Some of the roofs leaked for years before they were fixed, which caused interior situations, such as having the ceilings decay. So, we checked all of them, and found what we estimate to be 190,000 square feet of interior ceiling replacement. We don’t want the ceilings to fall in on the children.

Eventually, we will pay for all of these, whether we have a referendum or not. These are things that we see as potentially failing. We think it is better, cheaper and healthier to fix them all at once than to wait for things to fall apart and potentially endanger someone. Also, when you call a contractor in because the ceiling fell and you need it fixed today so you can reopen the room tomorrow, you’re going to pay a premium.

We looked at providing ADA access. What we would like to do is have complete ADA access in every room in every building in the district. That’s what we wanted to do. That would take the referendum up into the hundreds of millions. While every building will have ADA access and ADA bathrooms, we’ve selected seven schools to be completely ADA accessible. Those schools we selected because they were one story, so we wouldn’t need elevators, and because they were the easiest to convert to ADA access for the entire school.

We did [six] elementaries, one middle and one high school. Any child who is a resident of Hamilton can go to a nearby elementary school, one of the middle schools and Steinert when we’re finished with the referendum, and have complete ADA access.

We also have some things called life safety—failing steam pipes at Nottingham, walls outside of West and Mercerville that look to have a bow in them, some structural reinforcements and some lower egress at Greenwood, some drainage problems. There’s nothing very flamboyant about this. It’s just doing repairs that you’re not getting excited about, but you’re just trying to keep it healthy.

At Lalor School, there were students on risers singing. They left, and the ceiling fell down. We’ve had all sort of issues like that in the short time I’ve been here. A ceiling fell at Sayen. The students were not there, thank God, but they could’ve been there.

Last year, we had to close the Steinert auditorium for the play. Someone saw something that looked like there was cracking in the ceiling. When we checked it out, it was a not-safe situation. We had to close the auditorium and move the play. We’ve identified those ceilings going forward. We want to be able to get to them in one fell swoop.

We’ve learned from mistakes of the past and mistakes of other districts. There are no frills. There is nothing you can sit back and say, “Come on, they don’t need that.” Come on, they can live with a leaky roof? I don’t think so.

HP: In the presentation shared with the community, the slides contained a comparison of this referendum with a $93M referendum. What was in that $93M number?

TF: I don’t have the detail for what we cut out of there. When we came up with things like “How many schools do we need to have ADA complete access?” we cut that kind of thing out. There’s no office upgrades. There’s not going to be any work done to [the board office at] Park Avenue. There’s not going to be any work to the warehouse facilities or warehouse offices. We took anything out that did not directly impact where the children are sitting every day.

HP: If voters approve the referendum, when would work begin? How long would it take to finish?

TF: We’ve traditionally done most of our work in the summers. Most school districts do. We’ve done that with our project to replace boilers and stuff. There are other kinds of work that can be done after school hours. A window replacement can be done after school hours. Anything that would involve a demolition of a wall or something, we would prefer not to do that when school is not in session. Even roofing, because of the odor of what they put on the roof. Anything that would cause an odor or a dust would be done when there’s no one in the building.

So, it will probably be a two-year process.

HP: What kind of feedback are you getting from the community on the referendum?

TF: It’s generally positive. We did get an original pushback of “Why not air conditioning?”

When we were developing the analysis, our architect did a square footage, back-of-the-envelope assessment of air conditioning. We thought that number was too high. Then, I got some calls and I talked to some people, and I felt that I didn’t have the actual back-up to fully explore air conditioning. We assumed it was too high of a cost, but I couldn’t prove that to you. So, we went back to the board and said we would like an analysis because I don’t want the referendum to turn into, “You’re doing all this work, and all you had to do was put a couple of units in the classroom, and you’re finished with it.”

So, we hired the architectural firm. They went through each building, and came up with a couple of solutions. One was the most popular among the people I spoke to in the community, which was putting an air conditioner in each classroom. We looked at that. That then lead to a complete overhaul of the electrical systems in most of the buildings because they’re not designed to have that many additional units. Once we looked at that cost and factored out that we were not going to have window units for hallways and auditoriums, upon further examination, our architect informed us that would be out of code because we would be pushing cold air into some places without the appropriate circulation of air that’s required from your normal rooftop unit.

We had to take that off the table because we were asking for $62M worth of work, and it would not be up to code. They then went to doing it appropriately with window-top units in the entire building with the proper air circulation. That came out to $162M, approximately.

That number added to the $53M, I thought we would then be entering the category of “They really don’t need all of that.” I don’t really want to give anybody an excuse to vote against this.

A lot of times, it is best to make a decision that you would bring back to your own self. I would allow my children into a classroom that wasn’t air conditioned on a hot day. I would not allow my child into a classroom that was unsafe because structurally deficient.

We believe this is so important for the district that we want to go forward with necessities only. So we dropped the air conditioning. At least we can articulate why, and we have a detailed study why you can’t simply stick an air conditioning unit in every classroom in a school.

HP: Hamilton is a community that has a history of rejecting referendums like these. Is that the reason you’ve tried to make this referendum as bare bones as possible?

TF: We’re aware that people are taxed to the max. Property taxes are historically high. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t being frivolous. We’re not asking people to pay for things we didn’t need. If I was a homeowner in Hamilton Township, I would recognize at some point you’re going to pay more. Penny wise and pound foolish.

Children need to go to school in safe places. We can’t continue to put off work. Hamilton is at a stage where it has put the work off for so many years. There was a referendum 10 years ago that was going to do this work plus more. My understanding is that people were hung up on lights and turf fields. While I would like to see our kids play on turf, it’s not a part of the referendum because I don’t think anyone wants to go there.

We want to make it so that the health, the safety, the security is in place, and there aren’t any frills to be angry about.

Tiles from the ceiling at Sayen Elementary School in Hamilton Square are falling off, one by one.

HP: During your presentation on the referendum during the summer, you had mentioned a proposal to close two of the older elementary schools. This isn’t in the referendum, but is that proposal on the table for the future?

TF: I think that was put out there as a Frequently Asked Question. That was a part of a former referendum, I think, or it was an idea that was floated. We looked at that. Klockner and Greenwood are two of our oldest schools. What is the cost to bring Klockner and Greenwood back to safe windows, doors, walls, structure? And what would be the cost to demo and put up one brand new building?

It was between $3-4M that we would have to spend on Klockner and Greenwood for health, safety and security. Or $40M for a knockdown and a new building.

The $40M would almost double [the referendum] number. We just took every precaution possible. There’s a “no” vote for every election, for every referendum. We tried to analyze where people would say “You could have done it this way.” When you look at it, we went with the most cost-effective way of doing the work.

It would have been nice to have a brand new elementary school, and we could have had ribbon cutting ceremonies. But for double the price, if my read on Hamilton is correct, they would prefer the most cost-effective way.

HP: You said in the summer that enrollment in township schools has fallen by 1,400 students in the last 10 years. Were that number and its implications taken into account when preparing this referendum?

TF: We’re still expecting a feasibility study that might change where students are assigned. When you drop 1,400 students, don’t forget that’s K-12. If that was in the high school only, you could close something. But it’s scattered throughout the district, and we don’t have the capacity to do that.

But we took it into consideration from the perspective that if we had a trendline going in the other direction, in that we had 1,400 trending upwards, we would have to look at expansion of facilities. And we don’t have to do that.

HP: You mentioned air conditioning. Elsewhere, I’ve heard solar panels were considered for the schools. What are some of the things you’ve cut from consideration?

TF: Solar panels are still being considered, but we wouldn’t be paying for them and neither would the taxpayer. We talked to our architect. It’s kind of a footprint. If you have completed all your roofs and you have everything under warranty, then you can go out to these companies that install solar panels, and you sell back to them the electric. And you get a discount. You make money and pay off the cost at the same time. It’s a no-cost win-win. That’s still open to us.

But our architect advised that you do that after the referendum. The larger the footprint, the better deal you get.

So, when we’re all buttoned up and safe to go out, we’re going to go out for bid for this.