The Monday approved a resolution to put a question on the November ballot regarding the “purchase or lease-purchase” of property “for school use” using no more than $2 million in capital reserves.
There is no specific property the school district has in mind at this point; rather, school officials said the $2 million would, if approved by voters, be taken out of the school board’s capital reserve account and be available to potentially acquire property in the future for things like more parking space, school yard expansion or more much-needed additional classroom space if anything becomes available near an existing school.
However it remained unclear Monday whether the county will allow the school district to put the following question on the Nov. 6 ballot:
Shall the Fort Lee Board of Education be authorized to expend an amount not to exceed two million dollars ($2,000,000.00) form the Board’s Capital Reserve Account for the acquisition of or lease-purchase of property for school use?
Business Administrator Cheryl Balletto said she’s been working with county officials, but that there is some gray area stemming from the school board not having held a public hearing in March, when the budget was being discussed, specifically on such a ballot question.
“We’re not raising money because we’re using capital reserves so we’re not raising taxes,” Balletto said, adding that she thinks the county will therefore allow the ballot question.
“This is on the agenda tonight for the board to approve,” she said. “However, if the county says we’re not allowed to do it, obviously this would never get sent to the Bergen County Clerk to be put on the ballot.”
The other possibilities, Balletto said, are that the question could go on next year’s ballot or become a referendum question if the county says no.
“We would have to wait until next November or have a special referendum election sometime throughout the year,” Balletto said.
Fort Lee resident Diane Sicheri questioned giving the board “a blank check” for $2 million without the public having a say in how it would be used.
“Our first referendum was for $98 million, the second one was for $90 million; we wound up with $30 million, which means there were a lot of projects that weren’t done,” Sicheri also said. “Two million dollars would be better spent doing some of those projects rather than gathering more property. I think we owe it to our children to at least fix the things that we need to fix, to give them the things they need to learn.”
Board attorney Matthew Giacobbe said that due to stringent state regulations, if the money isn’t moved out of the account, the board couldn’t use it to buy or lease property.
“We’re telling the state we are now taking $2 million out of this capital reserve account and segregating it so that it would be for property acquisition,” Giacobbe said, adding that before the money could be used for that purpose, the matter would still have to go through “the entire process of board approval [and] public hearing.”
“Let’s say a piece of property [becomes available] next to the high school,” he said. “Right now, you don’t have the ability to buy it.”
He said legislation passed nearly 10 years ago, mandates that excess money “has to fall to surplus.”
“You can’t just keep the money in the bank,” Giacobbe said. “It’s not just a blank check; it’s that if a good opportunity comes forward, you, as a board and a community, have the ability to act.”
School board member Joseph Surace said the district had the opportunity to purchase property adjacent to for a very good price several years ago, but that because of the state’s “wacky rules,” it didn’t happen, even though there was money in reserve.
“Because we didn’t say to the state of New Jersey, ‘We want to allocate this money for a specific purpose,’ when the properties came up for sale … we couldn’t buy it,” Surace said. “We want to be able to say, we have this money in this little pool, and if something comes up, we’re going to try to purchase it for the betterment of the district.”
Balletto estimated that there is currently roughly $2.4 million in the capital reserve account.
Fort Lee resident David Sarnoff said that if $2 million of that were to be spent on property that would ultimately result in more classrooms, he’s all for it.
“If it’s to build a permanent home for the Board of Ed. so that we save on rent going forward, those things make sense,” Sarnoff said.