Judge upholds South Hunterdon school referendum approval
FLEMINGTON – A Superior Court judge in Hunterdon County has upheld the results of the South Hunterdon Regional School District referendum in November, which narrowly approved the renovation of Lambertville Public School into a pre-K-4 facility and the construction of a new school for grades 5-8 on the high school campus.
Superior Court Judge Michael F. O'Neill on Wednesday rejected arguments that the referendum, which passed by two votes, 1,773 to 1,771, should be voided because of disputed ballots.
O'Neill said he was giving "the benefit of the doubt" to the voters whose domicile in the district was questioned and there was "not enough evidence" in the other charges in a lawsuit brought by West Amwell Mayor James Cally, West Amwell Township Committee members Stephen Bergenfeld, Gary Hoyer and John Dale, former South Hunterdon Board of Education member Craig Reading, West Amwell Planning Board member Robert Balaam and a dozen other West Amwell residents.
Matthew Moench, attorney for the plaintiffs, asked the judge to issue an order staying the school board from selling the bonds to fund the $33.4 million project pending an appeal of the court's decision.
Though saying he was not inclined to grant the request, O'Neill said he would give Moench, who also serves as mayor of Bridgewater, an opportunity to file a motion for the stay as soon as possible.
Scott Salmon, attorney for the school district, opposed Moench's request, saying the referendum was held seven months ago and since then, interest rates have increased, which would raise the final cost of the project.
"The school board has been anxious to issue bonds," he said, adding the district has "everything ready to go."
The lawsuit argued there were 15 illegally cast votes in the referendum before the voters did not reside within the three towns – West Amwell, Lambertville and Stockton – that make up the regional school district.
But in a brief, Salmon dismissed those arguments, saying the plaintiffs "have resorted to throwing spaghetti against the wall here to see what sticks."
"Simply because an election is close does not mean it was not fairly conducted," Salmon continued, "and there is no evidence to suggest that the result of the election does not express the legitimate popular will of the people."
The campaign for the referendum exposed a deep split between Lambertville and West Amwell. Nearly two-thirds of Lambertville voters supported the referendum while three-quarters of West Amwell voters opposed it.
The West Amwell Township Committee became involved in the campaign and charged that the school district was disseminating "propaganda" about the project.
More than 900 students attend the three district schools – Lambertville Public School, West Amwell Township Elementary School and South Hunterdon Regional High School.
The cost of renovating Lambertville Public School is $11.4 million with an addition costing $1.4 million. The cost of building the grades 5-8 school is $20.7 million.
The new school would be built on the high school campus where the junior varsity softball field is. A new JV softball field would be built either behind the new school or on West Amwell Township property behind the municipal building.
The new school would be structured with a two-story wing with grades 5-6 on the lower floor and grades 7-8 on the upper floor. All four grade levels would use the common spaces, such as the gym, cafeteria and library, separately.
The school board decided against building a new K-8 school because of its cost, $38 million to $40 million.
Lambertville Public School, built in 1968, has, by state standards, an undersized library and music room.
West Amwell School, built in 1952, has no art room, music classes meet in a trailer, an undersized library and no heat in the hallways.