When voters in Cherry Hill go to the polls Tuesday to decide a $210.7 million school bond question, they will make history.
It is the largest single school bond referendum in New Jersey in at least a decade and would drastically change the landscape in the Camden County school district — if voters approve three proposals that would raise property taxes.
“It is a major undertaking,” acknowledged school Superintendent Joseph Meloche. “There is work that just needs to be done across our district.”
The three-part spending plan includes a long laundry list: better security, including cameras and vestibules in most schools; new multipurpose rooms; renovated science labs and locker rooms; and projects in nearly every school in the district, which enrolls more than 11,200 students.
The proposal is the first school bond referendum in Cherry Hill in nearly 20 years and has triggered passions in the sprawling community of about 70,000, where lawn signs have popped up in support of and in opposition to the proposal. If approved, the bond would add $307 a year in new taxes on a home assessed at the township average of $223,500.
“The overall amount is outrageous,” said activist Judy Amoroso, who opposes the bond question.
Statewide, voters in nine school districts will consider school construction projects totaling more than $464.1 million, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. Tuesday is one of five times during the year that school boards may ask voters to approve a bond issue or special question.
The referendum questions typically seek a property tax increase and can be a tough sell to voters. They allow districts to pay for projects that cannot be funded through their annual operating budgets, such as capital improvements and renovations.
As in Cherry Hill, none of the proposals seeks to build a new school, which critics in the South Jersey district say is a shortcoming with such a large bond. Many districts are proposing security upgrades, roof repairs, or new heating or cooling systems.
Elsewhere in South Jersey, the Maple Shade district in Burlington County is asking voters to approve two proposals totaling $49.7 million that would update security at two elementary schools, build a classroom addition, and add an auxiliary addition to its high school. The state would contribute $17.5 million.
The Cherry Hill spending plan includes three sequential proposals. Voters must approve the first proposal in order to pass the next two proposals, which would largely fund infrastructure projects such as asbestos remediation and add new music rooms and classrooms. The work would be completed in stages over several years.
“The devil is in the details,” said Laurie Neary, a newly elected school board member who will take office in January. “Is this particular bond the right path forward? I don’t know that it is.”
Dawn Epstein, 35, a mother of two elementary school children, believes the proposal would make needed changes at all schools and fairly distribute funds where they are most needed. Some of her neighbors have lawn signs with opposing views. Police received one complaint about a stolen sign supporting the measure, said Chief William Monaghan.
"I just really think this is a critical time for us as a community to make the right decision,” said Epstein. “I think this is going to do great things for our children and our schools.”
Mayor Chuck Cahn also endorsed the bond question. Cherry Hill last approved a school bond in 1999, for $52 million.
“I firmly believe this bond is crucial to the continued success of our public schools,” Cahn said in a statement.
Some opponents, however, say the proposals fail to adequately address security needs in the district, the 12th largest in the state. Cherry Hill made headlines last spring following student-led protests over security concerns in the aftermath of the school massacre in Florida that left 17 dead. Cherry Hill armed the campus police officers at its two high schools last spring, and added five officers at its elementary and middle schools this year.
Under the bond proposal, about $10 million would be spent to install security vestibules at the main entrance to 15 buildings, a buffer area that requires a buzzer entry as an added layer of security. The district is using operating funds to put vestibules in three other schools, Meloche said.
Those measures, said longtime resident Rick Short, should be coupled with better security, including doors that lock automatically and panic alarms, which can be used to activate a lockdown. None are included in the referendum.
“There’s a lot of stuff missing,” said Short, a father of four who launched a campaign opposing the bond. “If it’s all about safety and security, these things should be in it.”
Meloche said Cherry Hill plans additional work not included in the bond question, while struggling to cope with underfunding by the state. Cherry Hill received slightly more than half of the $29 million in state aid that it was entitled to this year, despite a funding increase by Gov. Murphy
“There’s no one size fits all," Meloche said of the proposal. He has held nearly three dozen community meetings in recent weeks pitching the proposal. If voters approve the bond, the state would pay about $76.2 million toward the cost of the projects, leaving a $210.7 million tab for residents.
Meloche said he would likely ask the school board to bring the same measures for a vote again in March, if the ballot question is defeated. Without the proposed borrowing, taxes would decrease about $75 on a home assessed at the township average when the district pays off an existing bond in March 2019, he said.
Polls will be open Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.