Fort Lee Voters Say ‘Yes’ This Time, $30M Referendum Passes
The plan resoundingly approved Tuesday comes with $9.7M from the state and at a cost to the average homeowner of about $103 a year.
Fort Lee voters Tuesday approved the Fort Lee Board of Education’s third school bond referendum since September 2010 by a margin of more than 500 votes.
In unofficial results, the tally was 1,383 votes in favor of the $30.2 million referendum, and just 865 opposing the measure, with a small number of provisional ballots outstanding that Borough Clerk Neil Grant said wouldn’t be nearly enough to change the outcome.
That positive outcome—after two failed attempts at getting larger referendums passed in 2010—authorizes the school district to raise funds through the sale of bonds to finance boiler replacements, roof replacements, science lab renovations at Fort Lee High School and Lewis F. Cole Middle School, masonry repairs and other infrastructure renovations across the district that school officials have called “critical.”
It will also alleviate to a lesser extent some of the overcrowding plaguing the school system, at least at the middle school, where classroom space will be added.
“It’s a great moment for our community and the children of our community,” said board president Arthur Levine at Borough Hall Tuesday evening. “And thank you, voters of Fort Lee, for giving our children a brighter future tomorrow.”
Levine also thanked the Fort Lee Mayor and Council, other groups and associations, including the United Homeowners and the PTAs, for their support, and said the members of the school board “worked very hard and diligently” to get the job done.
“[Interim Superintendent] Steve Engravalle did an outstanding job and is joined by [Business Administrator] Cheryl Balletto,” Levine added. “These people worked hundreds of hours beyond even their own regular work load. Because of that and everybody’s efforts, the children of our borough will have a better future.”
Engravalle called it a “terrific day in the Fort Lee community.”
“We’re just pleased that we’re going to be able to make the repairs and move the district forward the way we know we need to do and provide the best education possible that our children deserve,” Engravalle said. “This is now many years in the making, and I’m humbled by the experience, humbled by the response from the voters, and we certainly will continue to move the district forward and do everything that we have to do to keep Fort Lee as an elite school district in New Jersey.”
For Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds Jack Denichilo, the fact that the referendum passed means that “now the real work begins,” as Engravalle put it.
“But it’s good work,” Denichilo said. “The taxpayers of Fort Lee did the right thing by the kids. We’re looking forward to getting this done.”
School board vice president Linda McCue said the outcome was “a win for our kids.”
“We worked hard; a lot of people came together,” McCue said. “I’m happy the community finally did what was right for our kids, and now we can move forward and at least take care of some of the problems. There’s more to be done, but one step at a time.”
Below is a breakdown of Tuesday’s results by election district:
Grant said Wednesday that there were five provisional ballots, three in favor and two opposed to the measure, and that the county still has to certify the election results.
Voter turnout Tuesday was about 12 percent.
The referendum, which was significantly scaled-back from the previous two in 2010, comes with nearly $10 million in state grant funding, which would have been lost to the district had the referendum failed again. But it includes mostly infrastructure repairs and upgrades school officials have emphasized are absolutely necessary.
The school district will in fact receive $9,775,611 in state aid—about 33 percent of the overall cost of the project. The local share is $20,430,466; the tax impact is estimated at $103 a year on an “average assessed home” valued at $468,436.
Below is a rundown of the school-by-school work those taxpayer dollars will now pay for:
- Fort Lee School No. 1 – HVAC system upgrades, roof replacement and window replacement at a total cost of about $3.2 million, with nearly $1.3 million coming from the state
- Fort Lee School No. 3 – Window replacement, masonry repair and repainting at a total cost of $915,000, $366,000 of which would come in the form of state aid
- Fort Lee School No. 4 – Masonry wall repair and repainting, HVAC system upgrades, electrical service upgrades and roof replacement at a total cost of slightly more than $5 million, of which about $2 million would come from the state
- Fort Lee High School – Science lab renovations, HVAC system upgrades, roof replacement, masonry wall repair and repainting at a total cost of about $6.7 million, with roughly $2.7 million coming in the form of state aid
- Lewis F. Cole Middle School – Media center, classroom and entry addition adding 15,250 square feet (including five new classrooms), classroom and music classroom renovations (a total of seven renovated classrooms), HVAC system upgrades and roof replacement and at a total cost of a little more than $14.3 million, with $3.4 million from the state
Critics had argued that in tough economic times, asking taxpayers to help foot the bill was asking too much, but school officials countered that it was the district’s last chance to receive the $9.7 million in state aid, that construction costs are lower now than they’ve been in years, that interest rates are also at historic lows and that voting ‘yes’ was an investment in Fort Lee’s school children and the community itself.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and each member of the Borough Council came out in full, public support of the referendum this time around, unlike in 2010. The referendum also garnered support from members of the United Homeowners Association of Fort Lee—support the school board did not enjoy when the plan was much more expensive and included a new school. The Korean Parent Advisory Council (KPAC), Korean American Association of Fort Lee (KAAFL) and PTA leaders and parents also lobbied hard in support of the referendum.
In mid-December 2010, local voters defeated a much bigger proposal to upgrade and expand the borough's school system for the second time in three months. The school board had originally presented a $99 million plan that September, but voters turned it down by a margin of just 54 votes, 1,651 to 1,597.
The second plan reduced the cost to $89 million, but the final tally that time around was 2,034 votes opposed to the measure, and just 1,357 in favor.
School board president Arthur Levine said in December that school officials were “mindful of every dollar” and recognized “the difficult economic circumstances.”
But he also said, “We need to get this done.”
“There is no greater insurance than having strong schools for your real estate values,” Levine said. “And most importantly, our kids need it. We need to keep them competitive. They don’t have the years anymore to wait. We’ve put it off for long enough. There has been virtually nothing done; now’s the time.”