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School Board Approves $2M Ballot Question For Property Purchase

The Fort Lee BOE wants to put a question on the Nov. 6 ballot asking voters to allow it to take $2 million out of its capital reserve account for property acquisition, should any become available. But it’s not clear if the county will approve.

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.

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Art Elmers August 29, 2012 at 01:12 PM
All this does is allow the BOE the flexibility needed to be able to take advantage of appropriate property coming onto the market. It doesn't mean that they have to buy something. State regulations would not allow them this flexibility unless they designated these excess capital funds in this manner. At least it shows that the BOE is being proactive and trying to look at all options when looking at our overcrowding issue.
Baba O'Riley August 29, 2012 at 01:49 PM
In theory this sounds like a good idea considering the various regulation that the state of NJ dictates on ocal BOE's. My main concern would be who has the final say in which property or properties are purchased and their end use. Would this be a Fort Lee referendum question or would the BOE along with School Administration make the final call?
Art Elmers August 29, 2012 at 09:00 PM
The BOE answered that question in a way by saying there would have to be public hearings on the proposed purchase. There would be an opportunity for public comment. I believe that means that a referendum would not be needed for the purchase. As to what the end use would be. If a capital project was planned, whether it be a new school or addition to an existing one, a referendum would be required.
William Mays August 30, 2012 at 07:40 PM
Art, too bad they don't care about what the public thinks.
Anna August 31, 2012 at 01:47 PM
Don't be silly Billy. All this vote did was to move a portion of funds into an area of the budget where it could POTENTIALLY be used to purchase or lease property. There was no actual proposal on the table for doing so. In future, if appropriate property became available, say land or a house next to one of the school buildings, the BOE would hold public hearings about whether or not to buy or lease it for the purpose of using it for classroom space, and then the whole matter would be put to a referendum. But they would have the flexibility to do so without having to go through lots of bureaucracy at the state level. The public would be consulted on it. This is not the same thing as building a whole new school building, which you were so vehemently opposed to.
Art Elmers August 31, 2012 at 05:17 PM
I think Billy was opposed to building a new school near the Rec Center. I don't want to put words in his mouth but I think his major objection was to the "where" not whether a new school was needed or not. This move gives the BOE the ability to purchase a new parcel of property somewhere else in Fort Lee or perhaps property adjacent to an existing school. It also gives them the ability to Lease or Lease/buy property. An example might be the Christ the Teacher School building if it ever closes and becomes available.
William Mays August 31, 2012 at 05:19 PM
I'm not opposed to the vote, I was just pointing that out.
William Mays August 31, 2012 at 05:25 PM
You are mostly right. I was extremely opposed to building a new school on a park that I use, that my kids use, that tons of other people use all the time. I wasn't a big fan of building a new school just for the 5th and 6th grade altogether. I think that they should partner with Englewood Cliffs and have them pay (at least half) for a new high school that will accommodate both the towns' students and use the current high school as a middle school.
Art Elmers August 31, 2012 at 05:55 PM
I have to admit, Billy may have a good idea. Partnering with Englewood Cliffs is an interesting solution. Currenty Englewood Cliffs has an agreement with Englewood to send their approximately 200 High School Students there. Englewood Cliffs has in the past tried to break this agreement and send their students to Tenafly but the courts have not allowed this. Since Tenafly allows out of town attendees who pay a tuition, most families pay to send their children to Tenafly HS or Private Schools. I don't think the courts would allow Englewood Cliffs to enter an agreement with Fort Lee since they don't allow them to enter one with Tenafly. And I can't see Englewood Cliffs willing to pay for half of a new school to only be 20% of the school enrollment. And since Fort Lee voted down a new school where the State of NJ was going to pay for about half of it, taking advantage of other than Fort Lee funding is not in the picture. Besides I really can't see them sending their students to attend a High School ranked 97th when they would like to attend one ranked third (Tenafly). But, Billy, I like the thinking outside the box. We need that sort of thinking if we are going to solve the growing overcrowding in all our schools.
Baba O'Riley August 31, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Billy Mays has some good ideas but as Art Elmers points out; the courts will not permit Englewood Cliffs to send their students to FLHS (regardless of the monetary percentage that Englewood Cliffs contributes). I voted against building a new schoolhouse as that would mean another structure to maintain, and more principals, assistant principals, teachers and administrative staff to hire further increasing the burden on the overwhelmed Fort Lee homeowner. I also did not like the idea of a park vanishing.

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