Fort Lee school officials once again led a group of more than a dozen community leaders, as well as candidates for local office, on a tour of a couple of the district’s schools Thursday to provide a firsthand look at infrastructure woes and overcrowding problems and attempt to drum up further support for the school board’s roughly $30 million referendum.
Similar to the tour Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and Fort Lee Councilman Jan Goldberg took in mid-October, after which both said they supported the referendum and agreed that the schools were in dire need of infrastructure upgrades and repairs, the tour on Thursday brought council members, candidates, PTA and other local leaders through Fort Lee School No. 1 and Lewis F. Cole Middle School—they did not hit the high school Thursday as they did in October because of time constraints—where they got to see 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in hallways and stairwells, libraries doubling as media labs, leaking ceilings, antiquated boilers and hopelessly outdated and inefficient science labs, among other problems school officials believe the referendum would go a long way toward addressing.
“We just want people to understand the issues the district faces,” said Fort Lee Board of Education president Arthur Levine. “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.”
School officials have previously said that after two, much bigger referendums failed last year, the latest $30 million referendum—roughly $10 million of which would come from state grant funding—includes mostly infrastructure repairs and upgrades they see as absolutely necessary but within a budget structure they believe the public will accept this time around. It would not, for the most part, address overcrowding, although it would include an expansion at the middle school that would result in eight new classrooms.
Instead, 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 result in a tax impact of about $123 more a year for homeowners with homes valued at $500,000, school officials estimate.
“I thought it was a worthwhile, bi-partisan, fact-finding meeting and an eye-opener,” said Fort Lee Council candidate Alfred Norton after the tour Thursday. “What I saw today with the choral teacher and her piano in the hallway next to lockers, an inadequate library that doubled as a media center [and] the ESL class that was in a storage closet were dismaying.”
Norton, a Republican, who has been publicly supportive of the referendum, said, “Education is a bedrock of society, and good school systems are a bedrock of a vital town economy.”
Marvin Rothenberg, who also took part in the tour Thursday, expressed a similar sentiment, saying good schools are the basis of a strong community.
“If you want to be selfish about it, good schools are going to raise the bar for the housing crisis,” Rothenberg said. “People will be moving to a town that has good schools.”
But Republican candidate for Fort Lee Mayor, Judith Fisher, said that as a parent of one child at the middle school and a sixth-grader at Fort Lee School No. 3, nothing she saw Thursday surprised her.
“What I’d like to see the [Board of Education] do is address their administrative costs, as well as their infrastructure needs, in order to let the taxpayer know that they’re doing their very best in all aspects,” Fisher said.
Incumbent Democratic Councilman Armand Pohan, meanwhile, said the need for “rejuvenation of the infrastructure is clear.”
“You wouldn’t let your house go this far without home improvements,” Pohan said. “There are people that may have disagreed with the much bigger solution the last time around, but this referendum, I don’t really see how anybody can really disagree with the need for capital renovation after 25 years of none.”
Other current Fort Lee Council members, who are not up for re-election this year, had similar reactions:
Councilman Joseph Cervieri called the tour an “eye-opener”
“We’ve all heard stories about how the classes were being held outside the normal classroom environment, in the hallways,” Cervieri said. “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’ … 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.”
Councilman Harvey Sohmer called what he saw Thursday “absolutely appalling” and a “wake-up call.” Councilwoman Ila Kasofsky, a proponent of green energy, said she was equally as appalled, particularly at the state of the “two old boilers” at School No. 1. Both urged residents to take the tour and see for themselves.
“I think absolutely that we have to get in gear and get things going,” Sohmer said.
Levine said that in the near future, the BOE would be offering tours in the evening “to any stakeholder, taxpayer [or] resident” because evenings are more convenient for most people.
“It’s important that the word gets out,” Levine said. “This is our last chance to fix these schools using state money.”
Acting Superintendent of Schools Steven Engravalle said that he’s even willing to personally escort people on such tours on an individual basis as long as they call and make an appointment with him (201-585-4612)—an offer Levine said he is willing to extend as well.
Updated: Monday, Nov. 7.
Fort Lee Councilman and Council liaison to the Fort Lee Board of Education Michael Sargenti, who is also running for re-election, received his tour on Monday because he couldn’t make it on either of the previous two due to work commitments.
Patch caught up with Sargenti before he departed on his tour, which he said would include School No. 4, School No. 3 and the middle school, with Engravalle and Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds Jack Denichilo.
Sargenti sought to deflect recent criticism about how he’s performing in his role as liaison to the school board, saying that just because he’s not physically present for meetings doesn’t mean he’s not fulfilling his duties.
“Because of the way the school system is set up and the way the town is set up, it’s two different make-ups,” Sargenti said Monday. “But, yet, we come together when there’s a big problem; when there’s a need, we do it. I’m in contact with Jack [Denichilo]; I’m in contact with the Board of Ed; I’m in contact with each individual board member.
Sargenti said Monday he just wanted “to take another look at it.”
“Brick and mortar doesn’t change,” he said. “It’s still the same thing as the film [made by Linda McCue for the previous referendums] shows. We are just outdated. We need to revive it, and not by putting a coat of paint on it.”
Sargenti said the bottom line is getting Fort Lee students “in classrooms that are manageable and upgrade our systems with technology.”
“So that’s what we’re going to look to do today,” he said.