New Jersey’s Hespe Overturns District Expansion Referendum

(Photo: Star-Ledger file photo)

(Photo: Star-Ledger)

After a decade-long wait, Freehold Borough School District in New Jersey will be receiving a $32 million school expansion project to accommodate the many new students arriving in public schools thanks to a ruling by New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe.

This exceptional decision was made after the state had overruled a voter referendum for expansion three times since 2003 and fifteen years after the first functional capacity point had been reached in the district.

"I think today is probably one of my proudest moments in the Legislature," Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) said. "This is so critical to this community … it's a historic day for Freehold Borough."

Residents who were in opposition to the referendum were concerned about the financial burden that would be put on taxpayers to fund the expansion. If approved, the average homeowner would end up paying a $278 property tax increase, reports Alex Napoliello for New Jersey Online.

The state will pay 85% of the costs for the expansion, and local taxpayers will cover the remaining 15%. The borough is home to approximately 12,000 residents.

But some taxpayers, such as Jeanne Flegler, a resident of Freehold Borough for over 50 years, think the 15% being paid by the public is still a difficult burden to bear, amounting to a $4.8 million addition to the borough's taxpayers.

Flegler added:

"This does not include increased construction costs, new teachers, aides and additional staff required to man all these new classrooms. So, this is not a win-win for the taxpayers. I'm happy for the children, not for my pocketbook."

In the 2015-2016 academic year, Freehold Borough's schools had 572 more students than the capacity of its three schools could handle. In one case, the Park Avenue Elementary School library was divided into seven small classrooms. Other students were packed onto a cafeteria stage.

Education Commissioner David Hespe has reversed two voter referendums by ruling that the almost $33 million in bonds be issued. Hespe said he was aware that Freehold Borough's Park Avenue Elementary, Middle School, and the Learning Center had been critically overcrowded.

Supporters of the expansion argue that the times that the referendums have failed to win the support needed to pass were because many residents are undocumented, which means they could not vote. The US Census Bureau reports that 43% of the population in the borough are Latino or Hispanic, according to Reuters' Brian Snyder.

Superintendent Rocco Tomazic said he was thankful to the commissioner for allowing his district to address the overcrowding and for the fact that the students of Freehold Borough have been made a priority, says Dan Alexander for New Jersey 101.5.

Hespe wrote in his ruling that if the expansion had not been allowed, students would not have had the ability to access the thorough and efficient education to which they are entitled under the constitution of the state.

The expansion will include 17 new full-sized classrooms, five classrooms designed for small groups, a gymnasium for Park Avenue Elementary School, a library at Park Avenue Elementary School, and a cafeteria at Freehold Learning Center.

Some residents, reports Adam Clark of New Jersey Advance Media, voted against the bond because voting for it would be undemocratic and misguided due to the fact that many of the students in the district were children of immigrants who were living in Freehold Borough illegally.

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