Voters to decide bond referendums in three South Jersey districts

Pennsauken School Superintendent Ronnie Tarchichi has a laundry list of needs for his district: better security, all-day preschool, new science labs and more classrooms, a new high-tech magnet high school,  a new turf field and tennis courts.

Tarchichi will find out Tuesday whether he has made a strong-enough case to persuade voters to approve a referendum for a $36 million bond issue that the school chief said will help fund improvements at the district’s 11 schools without raising taxes. It is the first bond referendum in the Camden County community in more than a decade.

“I don’t see it not passing. Why would you not give this to the kids?” Tarchichi said Monday at Pennsauken High School, where students were dismissed early after a power outage left the school dark for several hours.

Elsewhere in South Jersey,  residents in Collingswood and in the Northern Burlington Regional School District will also vote on school bonds Tuesday. The referendum questions, which typically seek a property tax increase, can be a tough sell among voters, and allow districts to pay for projects that cannot be funded through their annual operating budgets.

Under a sweeping plan that would impact every student in Pennsauken, the district would install a security “mousetrap” vestibule in every school  if voters approve the question, Tarchichi said. Each vestibule would be equipped with bulletproof glass and two sets of doors that require a buzzer entry, he said.

Camera icon Melanie Burney / Staff
Pennsauken Schools Superintendent Ronnie Tarchichi says a $36 million bond issue is desperately needed to make districtwide improvements including new security vestibules in every school.

“If you’re coming to cause trouble, now the police have you,” the superintendent said. “In today’s climate, it’s pretty dangerous.”

If voters approve the bond, the state would pay about $11 million toward the cost of the projects, leaving a $25 million tab for residents.  The owner of a home assessed at the township average of about $140,000 actually would see a monthly property tax decrease of about $11, because the balance from a bond set to expire in 2019 would be paid off and that, combined with the state aid, would yield a reduction, he said.

The spending plan also calls for demolishing Longfellow Elementary and building a community park and playground on the site, adding six classrooms at Phifer Middle, and turning Roosevelt Elementary into a magnet school that would enroll about 200 students interested in math and science. Grades would be reconfigured and some students reassigned to other schools as part of a plan to address declining enrollment. The district currently enrolls about 4,800 students.

The athletic complex at Pennsauken High would get upgrades, including a new turf field with lights for Friday night games and an eight-lane track, Tarchichi said. The plan also calls for a state-of-the-art fieldhouse, he said.

Camera icon Melanie Burney / Staff
Pennsauken High track and football coach Clinton Tabb shows senior Franshayla Matias, 18, how to perform CPR.

The walls of the high school are lined with positive signs. One quotes Muhammad Ali as saying, “The man who has no imagination has no wings.”

At the end of a dark hallway, football and track coach Clinton Tabb used natural light to wrap up a CPR lesson to his first aid class. Students took turns kneeling on red mats to practice on dummy dolls. Tabb switched from a Bee Gees’ song to a popular Missy Elliott tune to teach them the rhythm for administering CPR.

“It helps you keep to the beat when you know the song,” Tabb told the class.

Like Pennsauken, other school districts, including Collingswood, have held special events and made presentations to residents on the spending plans. This year, lawn signs, taking positions on both sides of a hotly debated $13.7 million bond referendum, have popped up in Collingswood.

“We’re hopeful, but I don’t know,” said Beth Ann Coleman, Collingswood’s school business administrator.

Collingswood wants to finance a 20-year bond to replace an antiquated sports stadium, and put in a turf field and a six-lane track. The plan also calls for installing new playground surfaces at all schools and creating a free-standing classroom suite for special-needs students ages 18 to 21 who are currently housed at the high school.

If approved, the bond would add about $193 to the annual tax bill for a home assessed at the borough average of $229,575.  The state would contribute about $720,000.

In Burlington County, voters in the Northern Burlington Regional district — covering Chesterfield, Mansfield, North Hanover and Springfield — are considering a $39.7 million bond to finance construction of an addition to connect the east and west buildings of the high school complex, renovations to instructional space and new science and technology labs. The state would pick up $10.3 million of the project costs.

Across the state, voters in eight districts in five counties will consider school construction and renovation projects totaling $219.2 million, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. Some qualify for state funding to cover some of the costs. Two districts, Bass River in Burlington County and Orange in Essex County are holding special elections for new board members.

Polls are open until 8 p.m. Tuesday.

School boards may propose a bond issue or special question to voters five times a year. The next date available for special elections will be in September. Districts that conduct school board elections in April may also hold bond referendums on April 17.

Camera icon Melanie Burney / Staff
Pennsauken High School will get a new library, auditorium, locker rooms and other extensive renovations if voters approve a $36 million bond referendum on Tuesday.