Brooklawn to vote on bond to convert church into school

A class for gifted students meets on a stage in the gym while a music lesson is also going on.
A class for gifted students meets on a stage in the gym while a music lesson is also going on.
Posted: January 29, 2014

Brooklawn School Superintendent John Kellmayer has a simple wish list for his crowded, one-building Camden County district: more space.

Kellmayer hopes that he has made a strong-enough case to persuade voters Tuesday to approve a $1.9 million bond proposal to convert a nearby former Catholic church into a middle school.

The district spends thousands of dollars annually to send its special-education students outside the district because it has no space. At Alice Costello Elementary School, a classroom is inside the gym. The art and music programs share a classroom, and music lessons are taught on the stage.

"We're basically out of room," Kellmayer said.

The district enrolls about 360 students, compared with 222 in the 2000-01 school year.

If the bond is approved, the district would buy the vacant St. Maurice Church and rectory. Both would be renovated and house five classrooms, small-group instructional areas, and office space.

"We just see it as a win-win situation for the school, the community, and, frankly, for the church," Kellmayer said. "It's a great opportunity."

In March, voters rejected a similar proposal by 12 votes. But that proposal did not include state assistance, Kellmayer said.

The new Brooklawn proposal calls for the state to pay about $620,000, leaving a $1.3 million tab for residents.

Supporters have tried to rally voters, holding public meetings and distributing literature. Borough officials also endorsed the proposal.

Mayor Terri Branella said the expansion would likely help the community of about 2,000 residents continue to attract young families with children.

"They come because we have a very good system," she said Monday. "I believe in making our school stronger."

No other special school elections were scheduled for Tuesday in Burlington, Camden, or Gloucester Counties.

Elsewhere in the state, residents will vote Tuesday on school bonds in Elmwood Park in Bergen County and Montague in Sussex County.

The owner of a home assessed at the borough average would see a monthly property tax increase of about $17.41 for a 15-year bond, according to the district's website.

School officials think the effect will be "tax-neutral" because the expansion will generate additional revenue to offset school taxes, Kellmayer said.

By setting up a self-contained classroom in the new building, the district could save the $50,000 it spends annually for each special education student sent outside the district, Kellmayer said.

The district expects to generate additional revenue by educating special education students from other districts, he said.

With the expansion, Brooklawn could accommodate about 430 students, Kellmayer said. There are no plans, however, to expand the Interdistrict Choice Program, which admits general education students from neighboring districts, he said.

Situated a short distance from the school on Community Road, St. Maurice and its rectory have been fixtures in the community since the '50s. They have been vacant since 2011.

The Camden Diocese once had 120 parishes in South Jersey, but in recent years, 50 have been closed. Spokesman Peter Feuerherd said it is left to the parish to decide how to dispose of vacant property.

"There is excess property in the diocese," Feuerherd said. "The goal of the diocese is to move them one way or the other."

The church is near an adult bookstore on Route 130, which has sparked concern from some critics.

Kellmayer said plans call for installing a six-foot privacy fence. The bookstore cannot be seen from the church's windows, he said. The church's facade would not be altered.

"It's a strange juxtaposition - an adult store and a church. But it is what it is," Kellmayer said.


Voting will take place Tuesday from 2 to 9 p.m.

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney

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