Haddonfield Schools to Add Advisory Group for Facilities Issues, but Bond Objectors Unmoved

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The district says its decision addresses oversight concerns from citizens groups. Objectors say they want more input in the bond before the vote. 

By Matt Skoufalos

Richard Perry. Credit: Haddonfield Schools.

Richard Perry. Credit: Haddonfield Schools.

Less than two weeks ahead of the March 8 vote on a $35-million school bond, the Haddonfield school district believes it has made an important concession to objectors within the borough.

On Tuesday, Haddonfield Superintendent Richard Perry announced that the district will form a citizens advisory committee dedicated to issues of facilities maintenance and repair.

Its role will include offering input on “priorities for ongoing and special repairs and maintenance,” the district noted in a press release.

The district will also hire a part-time school construction expert whose responsibilities will be “to conduct weekly walk-throughs of district facilities and work with maintenance staff to develop cost-effective solutions to problems as they arise,” according to the statement. Creating the job description for that monitor will be among the first tasks of the advisory committee.

Finally, the district will also contract with an outside construction management firm to oversee the work covered under the proposed bond “to ensure that plans for the projects are appropriate and cost-effective, and that contractors carry out their work according to specifications,” according to the press release.

Facilities issues at Haddonfield schools.

Facilities issues at Haddonfield schools.

The advisory committee is not intended to provide oversight regarding the upcoming bond referendum, however, and would not be formed until after the bond measure is resolved, Perry said. Establishment of the committee is not contingent upon the referendum passing, but the superintendent noted that if the measure falls short, “we have really major issues, and the advisory committee is the last thing we would need if that happens.

“We have buildings in danger of collapsing, and we’ll have to focus our resources on that,” he said.

Perry said the move shows the willingness of the district to establish transparency in its decision-making process as well as to plan for future facilities issues.

“We’ve been listening to the public for the past two years,” he said. “Every board meeting, we’ve changed the referendum from the feedback, and this is an example of how we listen. It’ll be a good way to get the community involved in terms of understanding what our capital needs are.”

Perry said the district had long planned to institute weekly facilities reviews “so we can pick up things very early if there are concerns,” but that the bond referendum is still “the primary way to fix these concerns.”

CURB logo. Credit: Haddonfield CURB.

CURB logo. Credit: Haddonfield CURB.

‘If they used a better process, they wouldn’t have a problem’

But Haddonfield resident Christine Schultz said Perry’s announcement “seems like it’s a little bit too late right now” for opponents of the bond referendum.

Schultz, an organizer of the anti-bond group Haddonfield CURB, called the decision “an eleventh-hour move to quell a lot of individuals who said they want to see an advisory board.

“We continued to hope that the school district would at least establish that [board]so that it would give the committee an opportunity to partake in the bond that is put forth, not to be an afterthought,” she said.

Schultz said that a part-time engineering professional doesn’t give the district everything it needs. Instead, her group wants the district to hire a full-time facilities management engineer with a Black Seal boiler operator license to conduct those environmental reviews.

“Having somebody come in once a week, I don’t know that’s going to be the best response to the issues that are plaguing us right now,” Schultz said. “We need to be a lot more proactive about maintenance than we have been.”

Despite Perry’s contention that the establishment of the advisory committee is a direct result of in-depth discussions with CURB and other objectors who have called for greater public oversight of the project, Schultz said the entire process under which the current bond was drafted has been flawed. When prior bond referenda were conducted in 1999-2000, she said the project architect held multiple community charettes that allowed the public the chance to “come away from that process confident that we had said what our input was.

“I think if they used a better process that engaged the community and they had a professional on board who saw these things every day and could put them in a report every year, they wouldn’t have a problem,” Schultz said. “It’s not unreasonable. It’s just the effort.”

Schultz continued to assert that the Haddonfield voting community is “very generous, very reasonable,” and will support the needs of the district “as long as they know that they are truly genuine, critical, and important needs.

“I think it’s the process [the board] use[s]to get there,” she said.

Linda Hochgertel

Linda Hochgertel. Credit: Linda Hochgertel.

‘If we don’t get a yes, we’re subjecting our kids to another year under those conditions’

To residents like Linda Hochgertel, who heads the pro-bond group, Citizens for Responsible Investment in Our Schools, the school district has sufficiently demonstrated its commitment to public engagement.

Hochgertel points to the whittling down of the initial, $81-million estimate returned by district architects “to the most dire of projects” as evidence of that feedback being acknowledged by the board. She said bond opponents like CURB are asking the district to offer a level of detail that is infeasible within the context of the normal construction bidding process.

“CURB points out things like there’s downspouts that aren’t being fixed, or there’s a piece of siding that’s missing where a cupola is on the high school,” Hochgertel said. “The architect has come in and done this broadstrokes measure, but this is just to get a number that is correct for the bond referendum.

“It would cost a lot of money to put those detailed plans in place, and you don’t do that,” she said. “You get the public’s approval, and then you determine these detailed plans.”

Hochgertel believes that forming an advisory committee is a concession that represents the willingness of the board to collaboratively resolve the issues its critics have presented. CURB’s argument—that prior facilities work wasn’t done right and therefore district leadership won’t capably oversee the upcoming projects—doesn’t wash with her.

“Pointing fingers at a previous board that is no longer in existence doesn’t make sense and doesn’t get us to where we need to be,” Hochgertel said. “[This board] looked at [facilities issues at]a very deep level; more than any previous board has done before. They’re communicating to us now that this is what we need to do to fix it, and they have a plan in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Hochgertel said that her citizens group also includes professionals who were initially critical of the size of the bond. These parents were convinced of the scope of the need after meeting privately with district architects to review the estimates, she said.

“Five parents who are engineers and architects, who have no connection to the Board of Education, no connection to CURB,” Hochgertel said. “They actually got information, met with the architect, completely independently, and said, ‘Wow, you’re going to need more than $35 million.’”

Haddonfield BOE. Credit: Haddonfield Schools.

Haddonfield BOE. Credit: Haddonfield Schools.

Hochgertel also believes that no argument will be sufficient to convince a certain segment of borough voters who are opposed to the bond referendum or to the leadership of the school district. She believes both the deteriorating conditions of the school and the money that must be raised to address them are an inevitability. Pushing the issue to September only delays the work unnecessarily, she said.

“It takes time to do these detailed plans that [CURB is] mad that they don’t have now,” Hochgertel said. “If we don’t get a yes in March, we can’t move next summer, and we’re looking at the following summer, and subjecting our kids to going in the following year under those conditions. It makes no sense.”

Even without the assistance of a citizens advisory board, Hochgertel said she believes the present board of education has enough professional experience to competently execute the work the referendum entails.

I voted for this board knowing that they would have this affect on my tax dollars,” she said. “We’ve got experts in law, experts in finance, and two members of the board (David Siedell and Susan Kutner) who have very specific knowledge in school facilities architecture. We’ve got that knowledge on the board.”

Both CURB and the school district will host public presentations on the impact of the bond referendum in the lead-up to the March 8 vote.

For prior NJ Pen reporting on the 2016 bond referendum see:

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