Below are questions that were posed either at public meetings or through this website, as well as answers based on the best information available at the time. Click on a question to make its answer expand. The school district will continue to respond to questions as the Bond Referendum work is completed; use the form to send in a question.
Why do we have to do this now?
Haddonfield’s Board of Education has worked for more than a year to get an expert review of the district’s buildings – going well beyond the required visual inspections to include looking inside walls, roofs and crawl spaces. That in-depth inspection showed structural risks, water leakage, inefficient utilities and other ways the buildings need prompt attention. Some of the concerns were so urgent that the board exhausted its reserve funds to start repairs immediately. Other issues were deemed so pressing that the board focused its efforts on making a plan to restore the buildings before further damage was done and before some areas were beyond use.
Why can’t we pay for these repairs within the existing school tax revenue?
Most school districts struggle to fit big-ticket maintenance into their operating budgets. Haddonfield has followed the rules of a 2010 state law that capped school property tax revenue at a 2 percent increase each year, without asking voters to approve a higher tax rate. Within that amount, the district has had to accommodate the typical rising costs of payroll, materials, contracted services, fuel, utilities and more. There are two key reasons why school districts typically address big-ticket maintenance outside of their operating budgets: Debt payments don’t count toward that 2 percent cap, and the state covers some of debt costs for certain facilities projects.
At the time of the Bond Referendum, advisors estimates that yes votes on all three proposals could lead to state aid totaling $11.6 million.
Could any of today’s problems been caused by past construction work, and will there be any warranties this time so we won’t face the same situation in 10 or 15 years?
The majority of work in Proposal I (critical needs) appears to be caused simply by age, and proposed work focuses on correcting known deficiencies rather than digging decades into the past to find fault. Restoration work is needed to address the deficiencies at areas built or renovated as early as 1890, 1913, 1923, and as “new” as 1954, 1964, and 1971. Information from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that school buildings need major repairs at 30-40 years old, and begin rapid deterioration after about 40 years. Every site on the Bond Referendum’s Question 1 list is more than 40 years old.
With our oversight committee and the use of a construction manager, we will be able to document and use warranties to protect our investments.
It seems like some of the currently proposed projects were part of the previous bonds. Do records prove all that work was really done?
The proposals do not focus on re-doing work that voters approved as late as 2004. Repairs made as part of previous bonds are not proposed to be repeated unless that repair or replacement has met its expected lifetime expectancy, or is in an area that is undergoing significant repair. There are building components that — while not at their lifetime expectancy — are close enough to that point that they aren’t considered worthy of replacement. Re-using aged materials could jeopardize the new work done around them. Additionally, something like “door replacements” or “roof repairs” listed generally on an older project list doesn’t mean those exact components are part of the current proposal.
But yes, local records and state procedures both confirm that renovations from bonds issued in 2000, 2001 and 2005 were done according to the plans that voters approved. The state has a system in place to review purchase orders as the work is done. A third party, separate from the school district, reviews every bill related to a bond issue, verifying each piece of the project. The Office of the State Comptroller recently reviewed those records and reported, “We have completed our review and no further action will be taken by this office.”
What is Debt Service Aid, and how is it calculated?
Debt Service Aid is financial assistance from the state for specific school facilities projects. Haddonfield gets a very small amount of state aid for general operational costs, so Debt Service Aid on the repayment of bonds is one of the few ways local taxpayers can be compensated for some of the state taxes they pay. Not all costs qualify; they have to be tied to an educational program. For that reason, stadium repairs in Proposal III are not eligible for Debt Service Aid. Everything else in the three-part Bond Referendum does qualify. Haddonfield wouldn’t get all the money right away. The aid is doled out year-by-year – as if the state is helping the district make its bond payments.
There is a quirk that – in the interest of transparency – requires explanation so voters are fully informed. Officially, the state said Haddonfield is eligible for Debt Service Aid to cover 40% of all project costs except the stadium. But historically, the state budget has afforded less than that. School leaders don’t want to paint a rosy picture that doesn’t reflect reality, but transparency requires that they publish official documentation. That’s why official paperwork says Haddonfield is eligible for Debt Service Aid at 40% even though experts and history suggest 34% is more realistic. Historically, that is the percentage the state has typically covered with Debt Service Aid. In presentations and informational material, the district uses the lower, more realistic 34% figure.
What if costs end up lower than the estimates?
There are only two ways a district can use proceeds from a Bond Referendum: The money can be used to overcome cost increases for projects that were approved as part of the Bond Referendum, or it can be used to pay down the bond debt. State rules are strict in this regard, and there is oversight every step of the way. If, for example, Proposal I passes but Proposal III doesn’t, money saved on Proposal I projects can’t be used to pay for anything in Proposal III. In fact, for a full year the district can’t spend any money on any project voters rejected, unless the state approves an emergency waiver to that rule.
What if costs end up higher than the estimates?
Experts advising the district pay close attention to trends in bond rates and construction costs. The proposals reflect that guidance, and also reflect the board’s desire for estimates that have a comfortable margin. That’s because of the way a Bond Referendum works. If estimates are lower than actual costs, the school board is still obligated to complete the projects and to complete them within the Bond Referendum revenue. The school board does not want to be forced in a position of downgrading window quality or interior finishes to be able to complete everything within a conservative estimate. This is a case where conservative (low) estimates might look appealing in the beginning, but they could harm the end result.
Why can’t we use a series of smaller Bond Referendums to get this work done over time?
School board members, conscious of the high price for critical repairs, have moved some work that could wait – such as the high school’s A wing – to a future referendum. But the primary reason Haddonfield can’t string out Proposal I projects over several bonds is that the work is critical for the safety and longevity of the buildings. The needs have to be addressed now. At the building wings proposed for repair, construction was similar and now they have similar problems: failing walls with loose masonry that requires immediate attention. Secondly, the school district is in the business of educating students. Every Bond Referendum consumes valuable staff time and incurs significant election-related costs. Repeated bond referendums mean more set-up costs and consulting fees, while sacrificing benefits of bulk purchasing and efficient work flow. The process detracts from the true focus of Haddonfield schools.
What if some part of the Bancroft property becomes available to the school district?
When the Bancroft site was on the market, school board members thought it could be a solution to the district’s land-locked status. But voters said no, and the board stopped pursuit of the property. People have asked: What if a piece of the property were donated to the district? The district currently uses a part of that property for overflow parking during events at the high school, and would hope to continue that arrangement. But the Bancroft property has not been part of the planning process for this Bond Referendum. This referendum is about maintaining the facilities that the district has.
Why weren’t buildings maintained all along? Why are we now realizing they are in such poor condition?
Regular maintenance is constantly being done on all the buildings that make up the Haddonfield school district. In fact, more than $4 million was spent in the past few years. But the schools are very old, and structural conditions are hidden inside walls, floors and ceilings. Imagine you see evidence in your home that might indicate termites, so you spend the money for an inspection. You get bad news: There ARE termites eating away at your home’s skeleton, and the damage is extensive. The problem was hidden, the price tag is alarming, and repairs have to start immediately.
What is the school board doing to stay on a maintenance schedule?
The bond referendum sought borrowing power to address the needs that were recently identified. Separate from that is the operating budget that covers everyday expenses. Haddonfield’s school board members have pledged to add attention to facilities management, either through a staff position or contracted services, and those costs will come from the operating budget. They will also build into the budget an annual, professional inspection of the five school buildings on a rotating basis. That means each building will undergo an in-depth inspection every five years. Although this will be additional spending, the school board believes the expense is necessary to catch small problems before they grow.
Why are science labs being added when the work probably won’t be done in time for the bump in middle school enrollment?
HMHS will struggle to find space as today’s 7th and 8th graders shift to that building. But even beyond that bump in projected student population, the science labs were deemed important enough for inclusion with other critical needs of Question 1. That’s because the high school is in need of that particular kind of space now – more than what a standard classroom offers – and new curriculum regulations are expected to require additional science-based, hands-on instruction. To meet those requirements, the proposed work would modernize an existing science lab and remodel faculty support space to create another. Both will be designed with versatility to serve multiple courses from different departments: better labeled STEAM (Blending disciplines to add the creativity of Arts to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Labs than science labs.
Why is the “soft costs” percentage set at 25 percent?
The age of Haddonfield’s buildings increase the chances that there will be unforeseen costs and complications. For that reason, the state’s Department of Education requires that a 25 percent cushion be built into the project estimates. Privately held businesses might be able to present different numbers, but school boards seeking state approval have no choice but to estimate soft costs at 25 percent. In addition, the soft costs in Haddonfield’s estimates include bond and election fees – costs that private entities don’t face.
What happens if the Bond Referendum is not approved?
If voters don’t approve the Bond Referendum on March 8, the Haddonfield school district will still have critical needs that cannot be paid for within the operating budget. In fact, state law prevents the district from spending any of its operational budget on voter-rejected questions for a full year unless the state grants an emergency waiver. (Under that scenario, the district would not be eligible for Debt Service Aid and would have to pay the entire cost.) The only way Haddonfield can pay for work of this financial scale is through the sale of bonds. The school board president has said that a “no” vote on Question 1 critical needs would likely require a second referendum.
There will be an impact on school operations. The process of issuing bonds, getting bids, and scheduling construction means most significant work will be complete as much as two years after voters approve a borrowing plan – largely dependent on the vote timing versus summer break. The 2015-16 school year started without the use of the high school’s B gym and cafeteria, until temporary netting was put in place to catch masonry, bricks or other pieces of facade that could fall. Over time that plastic netting will deteriorate, and at some point the B gym and cafeteria will be closed again because of safety concerns. The short-term solution at the start of this school year will become the longer term reality: Lunch will be served in the wrestling room, with meals brought in from the Central Elementary School cafeteria. Physical education classes will shift to the much smaller A gym. Afterschool sports that typically compete in the B gym will be scheduled for away games. The impact at other schools will have less of an impact on daily routines, but water leakage will continue to cause problems where building envelopes have been compromised.
Why is air conditioning proposed for the middle school cafeteria as part of Proposal I addressing critical needs?
School board members wrestled with issues surrounding air conditioning, and grouped almost all AC costs in Proposal II. One exception is the proposal to install it in the middle school’s cafeteria. That decision was made after considering the size of that room and its availability to serve as a temporary classroom on extremely hot days or standardized test days. Estimates do not present this as a very costly addition, and the result would provide HMS with a flexible option.
Are window replacements proposed for energy efficiency or design aesthetics?
The plans do not call for replacing windows for energy efficiency or design aesthetics. The only windows proposed for replacement are those in walls that are being rebuilt, those with lintel or framing failures, and those that are in such disrepair that they do not function. (The latter situation is a question of usefulness as well as safety.) It doesn’t make sense to rebuild based on decades-old design to accommodate aging windows. Buildings used to have large windows to let in natural light; they also let out valuable heat. Replacement windows will be more efficient, even though they are not being replaced for that reason. Not replacing aging windows may also affect the type of warranty the district will receive on wall repairs and waterproofing.
What kinds of electrical upgrades are in the Bond Referendum, and will they result in enhanced security?
Proposal I (critical needs) includes electrical upgrades that are mostly related to specific HVAC systems, classroom electrical additions, and “special systems” that include master clocks, and modern communications. A modern communication system has an important role in security because it would improve each school’s ability to communicate with teachers in individual classrooms. Currently, the telephone system in some classrooms is nonfunctioning and outdated; repair parts are no longer available. Additionally, Proposal I includes costs for added electrical wiring at spots where doors are being replaced or walls are being rebuilt. Workers can put that wiring in place while wall interiors are accessible, laying the groundwork for future expansion of the current building-wide security system. Costs to connect that pre-positioned wiring to a security system will be in the school’s operating budget rather than this Bond Referendum.
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