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Haddonfield readies for Jan. 22 referendum on buying Bancroft property

After more than a decade of debate over its fate, the 19.2-acre Bancroft School property in Haddonfield has reached a key crossroads.

After more than a decade of debate over its fate, the 19.2-acre Bancroft School property in Haddonfield has reached a key crossroads.

On Jan. 22, residents will vote on whether to approve a $12.5 million bond enabling the Haddonfield School District to purchase the site.

A yes vote means the land would be used for a school athletic field, recreation, parking, open space, and future educational needs. A few affordable housing units might go up. Bancroft would relocate within six years.

Additional funding of at least $3.5 million would come from Haddonfield Borough, which would acquire part of the property for parkland and recreational use.

The actual sale price is $12.2 million; the $16 million includes money for demolition, engineering and site work, a concession stand, and the installation of the athletic field.

The bond would cost a Haddonfield resident whose house is assessed at the borough average - $491,359 - $189 a year in new taxes for 20 years.

If the referendum is defeated, Bancroft officials say, they would scrap plans to sell the property and instead modernize the Haddonfield campus, which the school has occupied for 120 years.

Bancroft officials say they want to build a modern campus more suited to their needs than the current property, which has several decades-old buildings that were once residential but have been converted to classrooms and offices.

There are 15 buildings, used for offices, classrooms, and dormitories for the 100 students with intellectual or developmental disabilities who live on campus. About five acres are undeveloped.

Supporters and opponents are mobilizing for the vote.

Haddonfield United, a group opposing the purchase, largely focuses on the increased tax burden that would be created by the added school-district debt, with more tax increases likely down the road to pay for future projects on the site.

"There are people who grew up in the town, raised their kids and . . . made it what it is," said Haddonfield United founder Brian Kelly. "And they want to retire here, but the taxes are so high that they just can't afford it. Some are starting to leave. In these economic times, a project like this is fiscally irresponsible."

Referendum supporters disagree.

"Obtaining the property will continue the discussion on how we want to evolve as a town, a community, and an educational system," said Haddonfield school superintendent Richard Perry. "We want to be in control of what the future brings."

One Haddonfield, a group backing the purchase, says four words sum up its platform: education, conservation, recreation, and preservation.

Group founder Lee Pease, whose son attends the high school, said many residents want to create an expanded campus for Haddonfield Memorial High School, which is bordered by homes or parkland on three sides, with Bancroft on the fourth.

State Green Acres and county and borough open-space funds would pay for part of the purchase; that would lock in a chunk of acreage for parkland or recreation use.

As a result, some open-space advocates who opposed earlier purchase proposals now support the referendum question.

"This is about more than playing fields and parking lots," said Kim Custer, former head of Preservation Haddonfield, who wants to see part of the property devoted to trails, parks, and environmental activities. "This can be something everybody can be really proud of."

Sports boosters would get a new high school field on the Bancroft property, and possibly borough recreation fields as well.

The referendum proposal does not specify that the new school field would have artificial turf, but includes enough money to fund an artificial surface.

Turf installation on the existing high school stadium field and neighboring borough-owned Anniversary Field are not included in the question. Public and private funding already has raised the money for that project.

Historic Bancroft buildings would be preserved; One Haddonfield wants them put to community use, Pease said, possibly including an environmental center.

Acreage near the high school would eventually be used for a new school building. A Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) facility and a middle school have been discussed, but no decision has been made.

"What will drive this is the future educational needs of the district," said Perry.

There is no money in the ballot question for any new buildings; any such project would be subject to a future referendum.

The borough might allocate part of the site for 10 units of affordable housing, partly fulfilling a state requirement. But it could choose to build elsewhere in Haddonfield, and state affordable housing regulations are undergoing changes, so the situation is fluid, said Haddonfield Borough Commissioner Edward Borden Jr.

Opponents say district and borough financial resources should instead be directed to upgrading existing school buildings, playing fields, and infrastructure.

With the exception of tiny Tavistock, Haddonfield already has the highest average tax bill in Camden County - $12,792. That puts it in the top 10 percent of municipalities statewide.

"My tax bill is higher than my mortgage," said John Sullivan, whose son attends school in the district. Haddonfield, he said, "provides an excellent school system but the cost, before you even begin to talk about Bancroft, is tremendous. . . . The piggy bank should not be endless."

Sullivan said the January bond is "just for phase one. . . . The costs will continue" for future projects and to replace the athletic field surface, if artificial turf is installed.

"The important thing is for the district to remain affordable - otherwise, people will stop coming," he added. "We could be heading there in not too long."