I have been quiet about my opposition to the Pennsauken School District building a public park at the site of the Longfellow School. In an agreement with Pennsauken Schools Superintendent Ronnie Tarchichi I agreed to support the referendum in exchange for his commitment to survey Pennsauken residents before moving forward with the plan to build a public park. In reality I supported all of the referendum except the park. With a commitment to let the residents decide if the District should spend $500,000 in taxpayer funds to build a public park I became a vocal supporter of the referendum. I have also been a vocal supporter of Superintendent Tarchichi as I believe his vision for the Pennsauken School District will make us the premier district in the region.
If you do not know what I am referring to I’ll give you a little background. The Pennsauken School District intends to demolish the Longfellow School. The school is in disrepair. The cost to rehab the school and current student population in the district makes it financially unfeasible to repair the building. A plan is in place to close the school after the 2017/2018 school year and relocate students. That leaves the question of what to do with the property. This is where things get heated. The district intends to spend $500,000 to build a public park on the land. Many (me included) are outraged by the park plan. The Pennsauken School District has no business spending $500,000 to get into the public park business. Pennsauken Township has a Parks and Recreation Department that is responsible for public parks. The District’s budget should be spent on educating students not providing the people of Pennsauken a public park.
Initially residents were told that the land must be retained in the event student population increases and another school needed to be built. When pressed on why the district would spend $500,000 to build what they intend to be a temporary public park on the land their position changed. We were then told that if another elementary school was needed in the future it would be built on the site of the old Central School. That being the case there is no reason not to sell the land. If you click on this Google Earth link and scroll you can see a 360-degree view of the property and neighborhood surrounding the Longfellow site. New homes would fit perfectly into the area. The District could sell the land to a developer and rather then a $500,000 burden on tax payers (not including future maintenance costs for a park) the land could provide revenue to the District. Resident in the area may not agree with new homes in the neighborhood but the rest of the township does not agree with our tax dollars being used by the School District to build and maintain a public park. Selling the land would be the only fiscally responsible move for the District.
The District refused to consider selling the land. Some then suggested that it simply become open space. A nice grassy field with trees would add astatically to the neighborhood. Sending a crew to cut the grass would be considerably less expensive than building a $500,000 park, maintaining it and eventually replacing equipment. The opposition argued that an open field would attract undesirables to the area. Perhaps these people should speak with those who live in the neighborhoods that currently have parks. Our current parks attract undesirables and illegal activity at night. There are many more places for undesirables to hide and illegal activity to take place in a park then an open field.
When questioned at a Board of Education meeting Pennsauken Board of Education President Nicholas Perry stated that this is not a public park (even though in all of the referendum materials it is called a public park) but an “educational area for students that is available to the public”. Mr. Perry went on to state that students could go there and “study butterflies and birds”. I hope that Mr. Perry doesn’t think that anyone took him seriously. Does Mr. Perry believe that pickleball courts and a jogging track will attract more birds and butterflies than other places in the township? Will all of the birds and butterflies in the township leave our current parks and school playgrounds for the opportunity to play pickleball? It would appear to me that Mr. Perry himself knows that the District does not belong in the public park business and tried to justify this $500,000 waste of taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately his spin attempt only made him look foolish and the propaganda continued.
Prior to the referendum vote many in Pennsauken defended the plan for the School District to build a public park at the site of Longfellow School because they were afraid the referendum would not pass. Many said “why throw away the entire referendum over one negative piece of the plan?”. The referendum has now passed and fiscal responsibility must prevail in executing a plan for the Longfellow property. Public parks are not the responsibility of the Pennsauken School District. The Pennsauken Township Parks and Recreation Department owns and maintains many parks in our town. Every tax dollar provided to the Pennsauken School District should be spent to educate our children. Despite Mr. Perry’s claim that students would use the public park to study birds and butterflies this public park does not benefit the students of the Pennsauken School District. It benefits the resident of the neighborhood. The Pennsauken School District spending $500,000 to build a public park on the Longfellow School property is an outrageous waste of taxpayer funds.
I don’t begrudge any neighborhood having a park. I was a single dad and my kids and I enjoyed playing in parks. However, parks are the responsibility of Pennsauken Township not the Pennsauken School District. I absolutely cannot support the district spending $500,000 to build a park and future monies to maintain it. If residents want a new park I have no issue with that. They should address it with Pennsauken Township not the Pennsauken School District. If Board President Perry and Superintendent Tarchichi believe that the land should be used for a park they should have negotiated a deal with Pennsauken Township. If they believe a park is the best use of the land the District should donate the land to the Township and allow the Township to develop a park. The Pennsauken Parks and Recreation Department has the experience, expertise and responsibility for maintaining public parks. I have often made the analogy that the Pennsauken School District getting into the public park business is no different then Perry and Tarchichi deciding that students do not like the cafeteria at the High School and buying a McDonald’s franchise. The District belongs in the public park business as much as they belong in the fast food franchise business.
I asked Superintendent Tarchichi what would happen to the $500,000 earmarked in the referendum to build the park if the park was removed from the plan. He said the funds would be returned to tax payers. During the District’s promoting of the referendum they touted an average of an $11 decrease in school taxes if the referendum passed. Based on the 2010 census there were 12,633 households in Pennsauken. Remove the $500,000 park expense and your taxes decrease by an additional $39.58. If the District sells the land for $500,000 (admittedly I have no idea of the value of the land) taxes decrease by an additional $39.58. Not building the park and selling the land could decrease school taxes by $90.16. That may not sound significant to many of us but I’m sure that there are some in this township who find $90 significant. Especially when we live in the highest taxed state in the nation.
That brings us to the latest in the Longfellow Park saga. You’ll remember I started this post by saying that Superintendent Tarchichi committed to me that if the referendum passed the District would survey residents on building the park. It was brought to my attention on Sunday April 8, 2018 that the survey was posted on the District web site. Initially the survey stated that “For those voting no, you MUST include a viable alternative to the proposed park in order for your “no vote” to count.” This is ridiculous in my opinion. We as residents are not city planners and we should not be expected to come up with alternatives for an $500,000 waste of tax payer funds. This is also not the agreement I had with Superintendent Tarchichi. I was told that residents would be surveyed on the park plan. That did not include having to propose an alternative for our no votes to count. I do not have an advanced degree in city planning and I should not be responsible for developing an alternate plan because I oppose a $500,000 waste of taxpayer funds. Asking for a suggestion is fine. Telling residents that our no vote will not count unless we propose an alternative plan is stacking the deck. I also oppose the language “viable alternative”. Who decides if someone’s idea is “viable”? This language would allow the District to disqualify no votes if they find someone’s idea is not “viable”. This is unacceptable! The survey also does not state when voting will end. In reality the District could look at voting results and end voting anytime. If they happened to see one more “Yes” vote than “No” vote they could end voting at that moment and move forward with the park plan.
On Monday April 9, 2018 the language was changed slightly to read “For those voting no, the District is asking respondents to suggest an alternative to the proposed park in order for your “no vote” to count.” I still find this language unacceptable. Asking for our suggestions is fine. Telling us that we have to suggest an alternative for our no vote to count is not. Residents should be able to vote yes or no without being required to suggest an alternative. The district realizes that this requirement will deter some who do not agree with this $500,000 waste of taxpayer funds from voting no. It’s a continued attempt to stack the deck in favor of the park in my opinion. There continues to be no end date on the survey leaving the District the option to end voting at any time More yes notes than no? Let’s end voting today.
Pennsauken residents and tax payers must stand up and demand fiscal responsibility and fairness from the Pennsauken School District, Board of Education, Board President Perry and Superintendent Tarchichi. This revolution will not be televised but we will have our voices heard via social media and Board of Education meetings. The deck cannot be stacked in favor of fiscal irresponsibility and the District moving into the public park business!