Three Burlington County school districts will ask voters Tuesday to approve nearly $50 million in construction to improve energy efficiency and upgrade buildings.
Projects include science labs in Delran, solar panels in Lumberton, and new boilers in Palmyra. Passage would allow the districts to draw from a new pot of $1 billion in state school construction aid for suburban and urban-rim districts approved last summer.
"Some people are leery because of the economy, and I don't blame them," Lumberton business manager Thomas Fanuka said. "Some worry about the state's ability to pay its share."
But he and representatives of the other districts said the slow economy could prove a boon for school projects. Because construction jobs are fewer these days, they expected very competitive bids.
"Everyone's starving for work," Palmyra superintendent Richard Perry said.
Fanuka said Lumberton would pursue a zero-interest renewable energy loan available soon through a federal bailout plan.
Here are the details of the three ballot questions:
Delran will try for the fourth time in five years to persuade taxpayers to remodel its four schools. Referendum questions failed in 2003 and twice in 2005, but by increasingly smaller margins.
This time, the district proposes a $25.9 million bond to build additions at the high school and middle school to alleviate overcrowding and update science laboratories.
"Our middle school hasn't been changed since 1960, when it opened," said Lee-Anne Oros, director of special projects. "And the high school has had no major renovation since it opened in 1975."
"Colleges anticipate a lot of laboratory science," she said. "We need more space to be innovative."
The district also would upgrade dated boilers, windows, lighting and roofing to improve energy efficiency, and renovate bathrooms to accommodate people with disabilities. Seven acres donated behind the intermediate school would be turned into athletic fields.
When evaluated in 2007, the 1960s middle-school boiler received an efficiency rating between 59 and 71 percent, way below the desired 90 percent range, Oros said, and that wastes money.
If Delran voters pass the question, the state would contribute $5.7 million toward the repairs. To fund the balance, Delran taxpayers would pay $191 more a year on a house assessed at the district average of $234,200.
Polls will be open from 3 to 9 p.m. at the intermediate, middle and high schools.
Lumberton proposes spending money now to save money later - by installing 5,000 solar panels on its four school buildings.
The $14.9 million bond also includes $4.1 million in upgrades and maintenance on lighting, roofs, ventilation and carpeting. If the question passes, the state would contribute $6.3 million, leaving taxpayers to fund the balance with a tax increase of about $250 a year on a house assessed at $500,000.
However, Fanuka noted, the district estimates utility savings and sales of solar credits would generate about $900,000 a year in income, which could be used to reduce future tax increases. Utility costs are budgeted at $700,000 next year, he said.
Solar credits, known as Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs), are earned when a system generates 1,000 kilowatts of electricity. They are sold or traded separately from the power. Their value lies in the clean energy benefits of solar power.
Solar panels are part of eight of the 19 questions on Tuesday's ballots statewide, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.
As of the beginning of the school year, solar projects were under way or had been completed in 65 school buildings in 33 New Jersey school districts, most of them assisted by a clean energy rebate program that has expired, state records show. Projects in 68 other schools in 42 school districts were in the pipeline.
In Gloucester County, a $6.2 million solar panel referendum question in Washington Township failed by about 300 votes in March.
Lumberton polls will be open from 3 to 9 p.m. at Ashbrook Elementary School.
Nearly half of Palmyra's $9.9 million bond focuses on energy efficiency. Proposed projects include heating and cooling systems, doors, lighting and $350,000 in solar panels. The district's three schools also need asbestos abatement.
Perry said he was particularly worried about the high school's failure to meet modern fire standards and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Stairwells are not up to code, and the school's boiler and wiring date to 1921.
"It's corroded, rusty, and put together by duct tape," Perry said. "I hate to think what could happen if we don't do anything."
Solar panels would cover a quarter of the Charles Street Elementary School, which got a new roof through the district's 2006 referendum. The panels would cut electricity costs 8 percent a year, the district estimates.
If the question passes, the state would fund 39 percent, or $3.8 million, leaving borough taxpayers to foot about $6.1 million. Taxes would increase $186 a year on a property assessed at $100,000.
Polls will be open from 2 to 9 p.m. at the Charles Street and Delaware Avenue Schools.