Architect for Fair Lawn Schools Presents $24 million School Expansion Plan

A Fair Lawn resident asks Architect Stephen Secora of LAN Associates about parking and traffic flow on Sept. 11. Credits: Lianna Albrizio
FAIR LAWN -- A $24 million renovation project involving two of the borough’s middle schools will help alleviate a longstanding overcrowding issue at the district, according to district officials.  

On September 11, architect Stephen Secora of LAN Associates, an engineering consultant in Midland Park, presented floor plans of what a reconfiguration of Thomas Jefferson and Memorial middle schools are purported to look like.

The proposal is contingent upon an upcoming referendum that will ask borough residents if they wish to fund the project that would make the borough’s six elementary schools (currently K-5) K-4, and move the fifth-graders in with the sixth-eighth middle schools.

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The board passed a resolution approving the reconfiguration on Aug. 21. The project is part of the district's Long Range Facilities plan, which will be sent to Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington for approval.

According to Secora’s blueprints, the expansion plan in both middle schools entails additional classrooms and renovations to the kitchens and existing spaces – a price tag of roughly $11.4 million in improvements to Memorial School and $11.9 million in Thomas Jefferson.

In Memorial, the plan calls for reconstructing the school’s 12 classrooms in order to lose three and yield a net addition of nine new classrooms or 17,336 square feet. Memorial’s media center, which is currently under 2,000 square feet, according to Secora, will also be renovated to enlarge to a proposed 5,000 square feet. These renovations (which included new furniture in the media center) are roughly $10 million. The improvements to the building’s second-story will yield a total of 22,336 square feet.

In addition, new elevators and stairwells will be installed to link the second floor with the first floor. New elevators, according to Secora, have been incorporated into the board’s Long Range Facilities Plan “for quite some time.” Construction plans to the first floor will include renovations to the existing kitchen located in the west wing and will cost about $805,000.

Over at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, the proposal calls for an $11 million expansion plan for a net addition of 14 classrooms – seven on each of the two floors. The plan will also include a “cafetorium” or multi-purpose room, which will be 2,700 square feet for the fifth-grade. The improvements will yield a total square footage of 24,785 in the new school.

Also factored into the proposal is a new air conditioning unit is proposed for the Fair Lawn High School auditorium for $600,000.

The proposal will be up for a referendum slated for Tuesday, March 13, 2018 enabling the taxpayers to have the final say. Preceding that date on March 6, a “referendum-type open house” will be held to provide the community with any additional information or questions they may have on the project, Interim Superintendent Ernest Palestis said.

Currently, a survey is being created for parents, residents and teachers to garner their input on the proposed changes, something that will be put out “shortly” Palestis said.

If the referendum passes, construction would take between 14-18 months, with the “noisy” components of the work taking place in the summer according to Secora.

Rising enrollment in the borough’s six K-5 elementary schools which include Forrest, Lyncrest, Radburn, Warren Point, Westmoreland and Milnes as well its two 6-8 middle schools (Thomas Jefferson and Memorial) have caused significant congestion in the schools enough to cause safety hazards, according to district officials.

“The growth that’s taking place in the district is real,” said Palestis to a sizable crowd of residents who were gathered at “D Cafeteria” in Fair Lawn High School Monday night.

The superintendent added that the district has seen an increase of more than 500 students in the last five years. He added that there are at least 25 students per classroom, something he noted as “not an ideal educational situation.”

As of Sept. 1, the district had 5,011 pupils in the district, according to Board Secretary Brooke Bartley.

Board members attributed the growth to a high turnover rate of senior citizens selling their homes to younger families. Board members Jeff Klein and Joan Piela attested to seeing new children on their block, with Klein remarking that he’s seen six new kids on his block in the last year.

District officials say the proposed new configurations would allay overcrowding in the district and make it safer for children and smoother for adults who pick up and drop off their children from school, a situation one parent remarked at a previous meeting a “nightmare.”

In the meantime, education leaders passed a soft borders policy to help alleviate said congestion. The policy, which the Board of Education passed in April, mandates new homeowners who purchased a house or signed a lease agreement after July 1 subject to a reassignment of their child who is between the ages of K-5 to another elementary school is the one in their district is overcrowded. This policy does not apply to borough residents who lived in the borough before that date.

During a question-and-answer portion of the meeting, a question was posed about traffic conditions once the renovations are complete. Secora said civil engineers are reviewing the impact on parking and will have that information at a later date.

In response to another resident’s question concerning whether or not the budget will increase as the project moves forward, Secora said updating cost estimates as time goes on.

“Our goal is to stay within budget,” Secora said.

While the referendum is up to the public to decide, Palestis stressed the significance of getting the project done, given the influx of borough children and the need to “maintain Fair Lawn Schools as one of the best in New Jersey.” He also mentioned the risk of higher costs to build in the event that the referendum doesn’t get passed and the board has to start from scratch.

“If the referendum doesn’t pass, the price to build is only going to be higher,” he urged members of the public. “There is an urgency. The kids are coming. This plan will get us to where we need to be.”

Palestis said the referendum is “multi-stage” process and discussions on the matter will be held on a monthly basis. On Tuesday, Oct. 2, the board’s bond counsel will be present to disclose the financial impact the project would have on the taxpayer given the average assessed home value, as well as the state’s reimbursement of debt service aid to minimize the financial impact on taxpayers – a figure which Superintendent Palestis said would depend upon the project’s schematics and be presented at the Oct. 2 meeting. 

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