By Donald Wittkowski
Hallways once filled with children’s voices and laughter are now completely quiet at the Sea Isle City Public School.
The music room has become a makeshift junk area containing old computer equipment, fax machines, copiers and other discarded office supplies stacked in a corner.
Dan Tumolo, president of the Board of Education, walked through the building’s dark corridors on a recent day, pointing to empty offices once occupied by the principal, administrative staff and school nurse.
The old school, which was closed in 2012 due to the city’s declining student enrollment, is at a crossroads. Its fate is expected to be a major topic of discussion during a public hearing 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall on Sea Isle’s updated master plan, a blueprint for the future.
A draft copy of the master plan notes that “the consensus” of the city’s Planning Board is to recommend keeping the school for public recreation.
Tumolo, in his role as school board president, wants to see the building renovated into a combination recreation and community center that would serve children, teenagers and adults.
Mayor Leonard Desiderio believes city officials should listen to the public before making any decisions about what to do with the school.
“I’d like the community to come together to discuss the options and the cost to maintain that property,” he said.
However, Desiderio stressed he does not want the building demolished or sold to private developers.
“I believe it should be open to the public. Period,” he said.
The mayor also said he would not support rezoning the site to allow for condominiums or other types of residential construction.
According to Tumolo, the school property is zoned for administrative and public use, which prohibits condos or other housing projects from being built there.
The school occupies an entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street. Such a large chunk of property could prove to be very valuable, Tumolo noted.
“This block’s got to be worth $4 million, easy,” he said.
A community survey conducted by the city in 2015 asked the public for suggestions on what should be done with the school. The highest number of respondents, or 36 percent, proposed having the building redeveloped as a park or recreation site. The second-highest response was to use the property as a parking lot.
The survey also asked the public for recommendations on the types of activities or programs that should be included if the school becomes a recreation site. More than half of the respondents, or 52 percent, wanted a gymnasium, followed by teen activities (49 percent) and senior-citizen programs (43 percent).
The possibility of building an indoor pool at the school generated the highest number of written comments. Among the suggestions, 47 of the respondents said they wanted a community center with a pool, while four others were against a pool.
Tumolo, citing a previous estimate done for the city, said it would cost about $4 million to add a pool. He said he doesn’t believe enough people would use a pool to justify the cost.
He said he would be in favor of a pool only if it became self-sustaining, possibly through membership fees or by renting it to other school districts that don’t have pools.
Sea Isle’s school, built in 1971, once housed students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. A phased closing began in 2010, when students in grades fifth through eighth were transferred to the Ocean City school district.
By 2012, all of the remaining students in the lower grades were transferred to Ocean City. In June 2012, the school was closed.
Tumolo hopes the vacant building is transformed into a full-fledged recreation and community center for people of all ages, particularly children and teenagers.
“You need something for the young people. You need something for teenagers. That’s critical,” he said.
He cited dances, community plays, a theater club and sports as the types of activities that might appeal to teens.
“We have to win the confidence of the kids, and their parents, so they will come to these activities,” Tumolo said.
Sea Isle Business Administrator George Savastano said the city is “working on some things” to turn the school into a community center.
The city’s Recreation Committee has recommended that Sea Isle should keep the school property for indoor and outdoor recreation, the master plan says.
Both the Recreation Committee and the Planning Board are calling on the city to perform “a strategic facilities plan” and a cost analysis to help determine the building’s future use.
During a tour of the school last week, Tumolo described parts of the building that would need upgrading to convert it into a recreation center. They ranged from cosmetic changes such as a new gym floor to major upgrades that would include air-conditioning, new windows and reconfiguring the walls.
Tumolo also wants the city to demolish three weather-beaten trailers that were added to the school as part of an expansion project years ago.
Although the building no longer functions as a school, it is not dead space. The gym is open to the public during the summer for basketball games. Tumolo noted the gym is also used as the location for the city’s New Year’s celebration.
The Board of Education holds its public meetings in the school. In the winter, the city’s Recreation Department uses the school for office space.
In addition, the school has been designated as an emergency storm shelter. The city also uses the building for storage space.
After flooding from Hurricane Sandy damaged the old City Hall in 2012, the school served as a temporary headquarters for the municipal government and police department. The school continued in that role until the new $11.7 million City Hall opened in 2015 on John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
When the city was studying options for replacing the old City Hall, it considered the possibility of renovating and expanding the school to convert it into municipal offices and the police department.
Consultants estimated in 2012 that it would have cost $11.6 million for the school’s conversion. The work would have included bringing the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s storm standards.