The Haddonfield Board of Education unanimously approved final language for a $12.5 million bond referendum in a sometimes raucous public meeting Thursday night at the high school library.
The action clears the way for a Jan. 22 bond referendum for the purchase of the 19-acre Bancroft property adjacent to the high school. The joint purchase by the school board and the borough has been a lightning rod for criticism about the costs and priorities of the BOE and borough.
The plan is to pair the $12.5 million bond with at least $3.5 million in state, county and local open-space funds for the purchase. With the passage, the board met a Dec. 13 deadline for the language to be forwarded to the state Department of Education for approval.
Bancroft is a center for people with developmental disabilities and acquired brain injuries. It has been on this parcel of land for the past 128 years.
"I will pay taxes for anything that helps kids become responsible adults," said Angela Melzi, who said she is 65 and a lifelong borough resident. "But when I see this Bancroft proposal, I have to question what we are we doing as a community."
Melzi peppered the board with questions about an annual facilities report filed with the state that listed over $30 million in improvements needed for local schools. She asked if it was wise to buy Bancroft with other pressing needs.
Amid the rancor of the two-hour meeting Thursday, allegations of professional polling of this 2.5-square-mile borough were raised by several residents in a crowd of about two dozen. School board President Steve Weinstein said he was surprised when he got a call at home from pollsters.
"There's a stench of corruption in this town," said Dr. Susan Hoch, a physician and resident who said she was upset about a phone poll on the Bancroft purchase. "Who paid for this poll on us?"
Weinstein said he didn't know who paid for or commissioned the poll, but promised the crowd the BOE did not. Hoch called the canvas a push poll, a technique of planting negative or positive cues to callers disguised as an impartial poll.
The Bancroft property has been an oasis of possibilities in this nearly built-out borough for open-space preservation and the development of additional athletic fields. The public purchase plan includes the construction of a high-school sports field, demolition of existing buildings on the property, preservation of open space and preservation of land for future school development.
Bill Tourtellotte, a past president of the borough civic association, stood and said he supported the Bancroft purchase as a step forward.
"Where we're sitting is on land that used to be four or five houses that were taken to build this high school," Tourtellotte said. "This is a bigger issue than just us. Our predecessors did the right thing for us and now is our chance to exhibit good vision for those after us."
Opponents of the plan object to the sports field—for which Weinstein and other board officials favor a $1.2 million, artificial-turf surface—and additional taxes for borough residents who already pay some of the highest taxes in the state.
"I've said all along, there are reasons to vote against this and reasons to vote for it," Weinstein said after the meeting. "Everyone has a right to voice their opinion on taxes and costs. Let's see where it goes. I'm hopeful. That's all I can say."