The infrastructure project is the first in nearly 20 years, and touches every school building in the district.
By Matt Skoufalos | November 17, 2021
On December 14, voters in Audubon will decide whether to approve the first infrastructure bond posed by the borough school district in almost 20 years.
The $26.8-million question includes a local share of $15.8 million, which is estimated to raise taxes an estimated $280.91 per year on a home assessed at the borough average value ($202,294).
Dubbed the “Health, Safety, and Modernization Improvement Program,” the project will touch each of the three school campuses in the district with renovations designed to address their longstanding infrastructure needs.
Audubon Superintendent of Schools Andy Davis said the bond issue is “really a story in regards to where we are” in terms of the facilities showing their age.
“There’s nothing flashy in this bond,” Davis said. “It’s not a glamorous referendum. We need to keep our grounds and infrastructure going.”
Before the question was originally introduced in the summer of 2021, the Board of Education operations committee pared it down from a sum almost two-and-a-half times larger, Davis said.
In the months since, the committee whittled it down again, from a two-question, $31.787-million bond ($19.7-million local share) to the final version that will be presented to taxpayers at the polls next month. The work that remains is a collection of tasks that the district cannot manage in-house or within the scope of its current budget.
“It’s a needs bond,” Davis said. “It’s not even a wants bond. We took out almost all the projects that weren’t state-funded, condensed it, and made it one question.”
Top-line items in the project include roofing replacement and restoration, new ceilings and LED lighting, interior doors and frames, bathrooms, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) upgrades at all three schools.
At the Audubon Junior-Senior High School, the jobs list also includes repairs to the stadium grandstand, athletic field waterproofing and drainage, and resurfacing of its tennis and basketball courts.
Improvements to that building will account for the bulk of the project, at $18.646 million ($11.343 million local share).
At Mansion Avenue School, the jobs list also includes roofing, HVAC, and electrical work, plus drainage and resurfacing of the asphalt play area, replacement of the basketball equipment, a shade garden, and new perimeter fencing. The work to be done at Mansion Avenue School accounts for $4.926 million ($2.971 million local share) of the bond.
At Haviland Avenue Elementary School, in addition to HVAC work, bathroom renovations, new ceilings and LED lighting, and interior doors, frames, and accessibility hardware, the bond will cover the cost of relocating its playground, improving drainage and the asphalt surface of the play area, replacing basketball equipment, adding a shade garden, and a new, small, storage building for facilities equipment.
The work to be done at Haviland Avenue Elementary school accounts for the smallest portion of the bond, at $4.236 million ($2.567 million local share).
Between June and November 2021, district professionals trimmed about $4 million off the proposal, having identified it as work that can be covered by in-house staff. Among those projects scheduled to be completed outside the scope of the bond are:
- Replacing stair treads throughout district buildings ($100,000)
- Adding new bathrooms to the high-school football stadium ($200,000)
- Upgrading the stadium press box ($25,000)
- A lease-purchase agreement for new digital HVAC controls ($1.5 million)
- Upgrades and reconfiguration of the high-school guidance offices ($300,000)
- Sheet rock upgrades to high-school classroom walls ($50,000)
The updated bond also includes lower-cost versions of projects such as the public address, classroom bells, closed-circuit TV, and door access system (down to $346,000 from about $1.1 million); upgrades to the high-school art room (down to $100,000 from $250,000); and $50,000 in savings from a green energy grant that will cover the cost of upgrading auditorium lighting with LED bulbs instead of completely redoing those fixtures.
With the exception of the guidance suite renovations, all projects will be done “in the same scope and sequence as the bond,” Davis said, or within three years, with the auditorium lighting and HVAC controls done earliest.
“A lot of them are tag-teamed with what’s happening in the bond,” he said.
Audubon Schools Facilities Director Harry Rutter said some of the projects can be undertaken by his team on off-days during the school year, which will save them time during the summer.
To Rutter, the bond will address some of most meaningful repairs needed in the district, including HVAC, lighting, and physical security upgrades.
“The HVAC is a big deal in today’s world,” Rutter said.
“We have equipment that’s from the 1980s up to the last units that we installed in ‘05.
“They’re not what you need today for the amount of fresh air and clean air [necessary],” Rutter said.
The newer HVAC units will be made for higher-efficiency air filters and ultraviolet sterilization, which will improve air quality in the buildings while reducing energy costs through digital controls, he said.
Rutter also touted the physical improvements included in the bond, including brick-pointing and waterproofing, plus roof replacement and resealing, which will add another 10 years to their warranties.
“There’s no frills here,” he said.
Audubon Schools Business Administrator Debra Roncace pointed out that the most recent school bond authorized in 2005 will expire in 2025, which limits the amount of spending overlap between both projects.
Forty percent of the new bond costs are eligible for debt service aid from the New Jersey state government; the district will also save another $1 million in costs by sourcing funds from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund), a component of the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“If it wasn’t available, we’d be having to put that to the taxpayers as well,” Roncace said.
Projects included in the bond referendum are larger-scale repairs that couldn’t be included in the district general fund budget, which is subject to a 2-percent annual cap.
For Audubon, the cap limits the annual budget increase to some $200,000 to $250,000, “and there’s no way to get a project like this in that amount of money,” Roncace said.
“Normally that [2 percent] just goes to salary and benefits and fixed costs,” she said. “Right now, we’re reactive to things, where we’re going to be able to be proactive if this bond goes through.”
Davis said that the district realized some cost savings in the past year from not having had to bus some students to school during the remote instruction period of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It dedicated those dollars to cover improvements to the high-school track.
“Two percent sounds like a lot, but it gets eaten up really fast,” Davis said. “Your gas goes up, electric goes up, insurance changes, there’s other mandates from the state.”
Another detail working in favor of the project is that the district began its evaluation process two years ago, which places its application for state debt service aid near the front of the line in the approval process.
Audubon is “one of a few [districts] that is going to be able to be pushed forward with some of this work sooner than later,” the superintendent said, which will enable project planners to account for supply-and-demand realities in the late stages of the pandemic.
“We’re always going to make fiscally responsible decisions with the moneys that we have,” Davis said.
Friday, November 19, is the deadline to register to vote in the referendum, which will be held from 2 to 8 p.m. December 14 at normal polling places. Voters must be U.S. citizens aged 18 and older who have lived in Camden County since at least November 10, 2021.
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