The Board of Education is considering applying for one of two different state aid programs that could cut the cost of its planned school rehab referendum to Verona taxpayers.
One of the programs is a so-called ROD grant. Administered by the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA), it doles out construction aid to “regular operating districts”, i.e. school systems just like Verona. The ROD grant is an upfront award of 40% of the eligible cost of the project.
To get one, a district has to prove “critical” need, and only certain aspects of a construction project are covered: Replacing the antiquated boiler at Verona High School might qualify, as might the drainage issue that has led to problems underneath the track behind H.B. Whitehorne Middle School. Security and communication systems are also Level 1 priorities for ROD grants, and a security system is on Verona’s wish list. And the older the building, the better its chances for ROD funding: All of Verona’s school buildings except VHS have their origins in the Depression.
Now for the bad news: The ROD program explicitly rules out upgrades to athletic fields. The BOE said in May that it will cost at least $1.9 million to repair Sellitto Field, the upper field at VHS, which has developed holes. Some were the remnants of an orphanage that occupied the property a century ago, others are the result of degrading building rubble that was used to fill the field when it was expanded in the 1970s. Perhaps unfortunately for Verona, that rubble was found to not be toxic: Hazardous material abatement is covered by ROD grants.
But the BOE is also considering debt-service aid from the state. It would likely cover more of the project, but the payback is stretched over the life of the referendum bond. Another key issue: The ROD grant is awarded upfront, immediately reducing the amount of the referendum, while the debt-service aid would depend on the health of state finances every year. New Jersey has a long track record of not fully funding debt-service aid for schools.
If the BOE is going to go with a ROD grant, it is going to have to act fast. The application must be submitted to the state by noon on September 4. That could be dicey since Verona has not yet gotten an engineering estimate from EI Associates.
The Cedar Knolls firm is costing out four specific areas of work: the upper and lower fields at VHS, technology, security and buildings. You will hear, in the video below from the BOE’s July 30 meeting, BOE member Joseph Bellino talks about $12 million and $14 million, numbers that are higher than the $9.1 million price tag that the BOE has used before. BOE President John Quattrocchi noted after the meeting that the board has not yet determined the total for the engineering, and that Bellino used his figures purely as an example. The BOE has also not determined what the term of the referendum bond would be.
Superintendent Steven A. Forte has a meeting with EI Associates next week. The BOE anticipates having an outline of the referendum by August 10 and to decide which funding approach to take at its next meeting, which is Tuesday, August 27.
In other news, BOE member Glenn Elliott said that the Board had gotten a quote of $580,000 to overhaul the track behind H.B. Whitehorne Middle School. Elliott said the estimate, which came from Kinsey Associates, was “much higher than expected” and indicated that the BOE would be seeking other input. Flemington-based Kinsey is the firm that also did the planning and construction estimate for the two multi-purpose fields that Verona will be building on the Hilltop. The HBW track, which Verona built a little more than a decade ago with Montclair Kimberley Academy, needs a new drainage system and resurfacing.