Last week, the Collingswood Board of Education hosted a group discussion about its proposed stadium referendum; a second event is scheduled for October 3.
By Matt Skoufalos | October 3, 2017
Since debuting plans for a $20.8-million overhaul of its high-school athletic complex this spring, the Collingswood Board of Education (BOE) has faced a wave of criticism over the scope and cost of the project.
Last Thursday, some 50 Collingswood residents met in the high-school cafeteria, from the ceiling of which fly the flags of many nations, to participate in a world cafe forum.
Collingswood resident Richard Wilson, who works for the professional development division of the New Jersey Education Association, volunteered to organize and moderate the forum at no cost to the district. Wilson will publish the findings of last week’s event and another scheduled for October 3 as the board works to hone in on a ballot-ready version of the project.
Wilson described the world café as a model of “participatory leadership.”
“It’s an opportunity to get exposed to some different thinking,” he said. “Almost all the time, when folks leave, they talk about feeling like they were heard in a way that maybe they haven’t been before.”
Guests rotated among several tables randomly to inhibit the potential for individuals to dominate the discussion.
They were invited to discuss specific aspects of the stadium proposal, identifying its positives, challenges, alternatives, and unanswered questions.
Ideally, Wilson said the conversation would have started differently.
“If we were going to do this at the beginning of the project, we would start with what’s important to the community,” he said.
“[Now] it’s more about looking at the specific pieces of it.”
Collingswood Superintendent of Schools Scott Oswald said that in its latest iteration, the project is down from an initial price tag of more than $20 million to around $17 million. At $300 per square-foot, that works out to an estimated $250 to $260 per year for a home assessed at the borough median value on a 20-year bond. Without any significant state financial aid available, the project will be more than 90 percent locally funded.
“I live in New Jersey too, and our taxes in New Jersey are high,” Oswald said. “Everything that is being considered and proposed is very real, and the costs are real, and there are areas that at some point we’re going to have to do something about. The purpose behind this [forum]is to find out where people put their priorities.”
If the project doesn’t make it onto the ballot in the spring, the district doesn’t only lose time, but the cost of the project could fluctuate; ultimately, “something’s going to have to be done with the stadium because it’s in disrepair,” Oswald said.
But he said the district won’t push a project to the ballot without strong community support.
“Through the iterations of this board, they do listen to what the community asks for,” Oswald said.
Board member Jason Waugh said he was encouraged by specific conversations he overheard at some tables during the forum; he hoped it had the potential to improve the project.
Waugh, who was elected to the body last fall and added to the ad hoc stadium committee, said the project needed to be slowed down; originally, it had been intended for the November ballot. With feedback from the meeting participants, he believes a March 2018 vote might be more reasonable.
“I think the bigger issue is communication,” Waugh said. “People are saying, ‘I wish I had known about this earlier,’ [but]nothing is set in stone. If we get the feedback that it’s not a viable option, there’s no reason we wouldn’t put the brakes on it more and go back to the drawing board.”
Waugh also said he wants to continue to pursue grant opportunities to pay for some portion of the project, even if he doesn’t expect to be able to cover more than a couple hundred thousand dollars of its multimillion-dollar costs.
“I think it’s worth it,” he said. “Every dollar matters.”
As the discussion wrapped, spokespersons at each table discussed their groups’ findings.
Chief among the concerns listed was fiscal responsibility.
Other points included the health and safety issues related to turf fields, the impact of construction on neighboring homes, and creating space for special-needs adult students to remain within the district.
Resident Joseph Dinella was critical both of the design proposed by Garrison Architects and its inclusion of new offices for the district administration and professional staff. Dinella was similarly opposed to funding renovations to the elementary school playgrounds, which he said doesn’t make sense unless the lots are accessible when the schools are closed.
“I think they should break it up into two separate things: fields, board office, the life skills [classroom],” Dinella said. “I think a better design can come than what they have.”
Asked whether there would be any version of the project that he’d support, Dinella said, “something that is reasonable design-wise, utility-wise.
“They need a new stadium, but you need to get at least two full-sized fields because you have four school teams vying for the fields,” he said.
For residents like Bill Tapper, the bottom line is all.
“When I got wind of this particular project, the biggest concern is the price tag,” Tapper said. “If we spend this much money, I fear for the fiscal health of the town.”
Although he agrees the stadium “is a mess” and the fields need fixing up, as the head of a one-income household, Tapper fears that “the taxes are going to be crippling” in the age of two-percent caps.
“In several years, operating costs are going to exceed the cap, and now you’re going to plop on another multimillion-dollar project,” he said.
Tapper, a high-school science teacher, said he’s “never, ever questioned a school budget.”
But in the context of this project, “I think [the board]overshot,” he said. “Tremendously.”
Maybe the best thing to come out of the meeting was the mechanism of the world café format, said BOE President Jim Hatzell.
Designed to “raise the quieter voices and calm the loudest voices,” the world cafe seemed to function as intended, Hatzell said.
“This is a chance for everybody to come out and see,” he said. “Nothing’s going for a vote to the taxpayers until after we have a chance to have everything satisfied.”
Hatzell said the stadium proposal was generated from within a BOE steering committee of board members and a group of some 25 borough residents. He said the board’s intention always had been to take the information from the steering committee public to “see what happens” before introducing any proposal.
“What happened was we need more information,” Hatzell said.
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