The Fort Lee Board of Education begins lobbying efforts in earnest this week, or what it’s calling "community engagement," for a roughly $30.2 million school bond referendum—the fate of which Fort Lee voters will determine on Jan. 24—by offering the first of five walking tours of the schools Wednesday.
Participants will get a firsthand look at overcrowded lunchrooms and hallways, classrooms in what were once storage closets, music classes taught in hallways and stairwells, libraries doubling as media labs, leaking ceilings, antiquated boilers and hopelessly outdated and inefficient science labs, among other problems school officials believe the referendum would at least begin to address.
The five tours, which are open to the public and start at the school district’s central offices at 255 Whiteman St., start at either 11 a.m. or 7 p.m. to accommodate as many people as possible. Wednesday’s tour is an 11 a.m. start.
The walking tours are likely to be similar to two tours—one in mid-October and another in early November—school officials led Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and members of the Borough Council, candidates at the time for local office and other community leaders on.
“We just want people to understand the issues the district faces,” said Fort Lee Board of Education president Arthur Levine before the second tour. “They need to see how the money is going to be spent if we’re fortunate enough to get this referendum passed; seeing is believing.”
It was nearly a year ago—mid-December 2010—when Fort Lee voters defeated a multi-million dollar proposal to upgrade and expand the borough's school system for the second time in three months. The final tally was 2,034 votes opposed to the measure, and 1,357 in favor. The school board had originally presented a $99 million plan in September 2010, but voters turned that down by a margin of just 54 votes, 1,651 to 1,597.
The second plan whittled the cost to $89 million and called for building a new elementary school, expanding the middle school, high school and School No. 2, and repairing roofs, replacing windows, and heating and air conditioning systems at all four elementary schools, the middle school and the high school.
This year’s significantly scaled-back, roughly $30 million referendum—about $10 million of which would come from state grant funding—includes mostly infrastructure repairs and upgrades school officials see as critically essential. It would not, for the most part, address overcrowding—even though the district estimates School No. 1 is 35 percent over capacity; School No. 2, 26 percent; School No. 3, 40 percent; School No. 4, 30 percent; Lewis F. Cole Middle School, a whopping 88 percent; and Fort Lee High School is 74 percent over capacity—but it would include an expansion at the middle school resulting in eight new classrooms.
The $30 million version of the referendum includes extensive renovations across all six Fort Lee schools, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning upgrades at Fort Lee High School, the middle school and Schools No. 1 and 4; masonry repairs at the high school and Schools No. 3 and 4; roof replacement at the middle school and Schools No. 1 and 4; window replacement at the high school and Schools No. 1 and 3 and science room upgrades at the high school and middle school.
Roughly two-thirds infrastructure and one-third classroom improvements, in addition to the middle school expansion, the referendum, if passed, would come with a tax increase of about $123 a year for homeowners with homes valued at $500,000, school officials have estimated.
After each of the two previous two tours, borough officials expressed their support for the referendum.
Soklich said that during last year’s referendums, “there was a tacit agreement that we would go along with this and assist,” but he also admitted nobody was “out there on a soap box” lobbying in support.
This time around, he said, “I do plan on asking people for their support,” though he also noted that he was “speaking for Mark Sokolich” and not necessarily the entire Borough Council.
But Councilman Joseph Cervieri called the tour an “eye-opener.”
"I think that the third time around, this has been scaled-down to the point where it’s not a ‘like to have,’ but really an ‘absolute need to have,’" he said. “I encourage people to come out and take a look and see that this is a well thought out plan, and they should be supportive of it.”
The dates of the tours, which meet at the Board of Education offices at 255 Whiteman St., are as follows:
- Wed., Nov. 30, at 11 a.m.
- Wed., Dec. 7, at 7 p.m.
- Wed., Dec. 14, at 11 a.m.
- Wed., Jan. 4, at 11 a.m.
- Wed., Jan. 18, at 7 p.m.
There will also be three scheduled “community forum meetings” at the Jack Alter Fort Lee Community Center. Those public meetings are scheduled as follows:
- Mon., Dec. 12, at 7 p.m.
- Tues., Jan. 3, 2012, at 7 p.m.
- Tues., Jan 17, 2012, at 7 p.m.