By JOHN T. WARD
The Red Bank Charter School won approval Thursday night to create a gym in part of a commercial building it plans to buy on Monmouth Street.
In the process, the zoning board hearing on the plan re-exposed some long-simmering resentments harbored by parents who contend the charter school’s existence is a drain on the local school district.
At a hearing packed with parents and children, charter school representatives pressed their case for variances, all of them arising from pre-existing conditions they said would not be exacerbated, that would allow for the creation of a basketball-court-sized gym at 135-137 Monmouth Street.
The zoning for the building, which adjoins its Oakland Street campus, permits educational uses, and the charter school is already a tenant, leasing space for its for its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) lab for $3,800 per month.
The school has a contract to buy the building for $1.725 million, which would make it a landlord to a retail frame shop, a language school and other business tenants. It would also save the school money, superintendent Meredith Pennotti told the board.
She detailed the constraints the 18-year -old school faces in providing physical education and recreation to 200 K-8 students in the existing school’s playground and multipurpose room, which also serves as the lunchroom.
“We start in shorts and t-shirts, and then add hoodies, and then puffies” as the weather gets colder, Pennotti testified.
Over the winter, the school has utilized loaner gyms made available by Monmouth University, the Salvation Army, St. Anthony of Padua and other institutions, but always “limited by the schedules of those other organizations,” she said.
Comments and questions from audience members indicated they were motivated less by the particulars of the zoning case than by tensions between the charter and district schools.
Sue Viscomi, a member of the district school board and Cedar Street resident, asked Pennotti if the charter school would be “willing to donate back to the Red Bank public schools” the money it saves in switching from tenant to landlord.
“I’m not sure that’s relevant to what we’re doing tonight,” said charter school lawyer Martin Newmark.
Parent Jennifer Garcia of Drummond Place asked if the charter school had ever considered using the gyms at the district’s primary or middle school. Pennotti replied she wasn’t sure such an arrangement would be “optimal,” but when pressed by zoning board Chairwoman Lauren Nicosia on why she hadn’t pursued that option, Pennotti said “it’s pretty far away” and “we’d like to have a home court, a home gym.”
Kate Okeson, of Chapin Avenue, asked how much tax revenue would be lost if a portion of the building were to removed from the tax rolls. Newmark replied that he wasn’t a tax lawyer and didn’t know.
“I can barely afford to live here” in part because of property taxes, said Jill Burden, of West Westside Avenue. “Do we really need another non-ratable?”
Ben Forest, another district board member who said he was not speaking for the district, said the existence of the charter school “has made it more challenging” for the district financially.
“But it’s here, and if we’re going to have a charter school, I want it to be the best charter school it can be,” he told the board.
“The charter school has been part of this community for 18 years,” said zoning board member Ray Mass, in moving the plan for approval. “There are 200 children from all over Red Bank who need a place for their physical activities at the school.”
Nicosia seconded the motion, despite what she called her biggest problem with it: “that the charter school didn’t go” to the district to explore the possibility of gym-sharing.
The vote to approve was unanimous. Board member Kevin Moss had recused himself from the discussion, citing a conflict of interest.