FAIR LAWN – A $25 million expansion project at the borough’s two middle schools that officials proposed to solve an overcrowding crisis in the K-8 district will come to fruition in 2020, thanks to the majority of borough taxpayers who voted “yes” to the referendum question Tuesday.
Despite a threatening nor'easter that merely grazed the area, 2,241 were in favor of the referendum and 1,458 were opposed, the unofficial tally. A total of 3,699 votes were cast.
Mayor Lisa Swain reacted immediately after the outcome: "I think this is a positive outcome for the Board of Education and the Fair Lawn community. The board worked hard to come up with the best possible solution and the voters showed their confidence in the board's plan."
A crowd of people — a number of whom were parents hand-in-hand with their children — sauntered into Edison School last-minute to place their ballots one hour before the board tallied the votes.
One woman, whose kids are out of the K-8 district and interviewed before the results were revealed, said she supported the referendum to give kids needed space.
Another mother, whose daughter is going to sixth grade in the fall, said she voted against the referendum. She thinks the new configuration will crowd the middle schools and doesn’t think the fifth-graders are mature enough to attend middle school "just yet." She doubted the proposed expansion was worth the money. "$25 million," she said, "is too costly."
The referendum’s passing, however, was a relief to district officials, especially Interim Superintendent Ernest Palestis who proposed the expansion project. Palestis previously stressed to residents during 30 referendum meetings held through the school year, including presentations from the architect, demographers and bond counsel, that the “kids were coming” and the district could no longer comfortably accommodate the growing enrollment as they will “have no place to put them” in the future.
And, there was no "Plan B."
Cheers of applause from two dozen residents remotely echoed from a small classroom in Edison School after the votes were counted.
“I want to thank everyone,” said Palestis. “This is a time for elation. I'm proud of the result. I'm proud of the thoughtfulness of it. I’m proud to be a member of this community. Fair Lawn is everything it's advertised to be. It’s a great town to reside in.”
For people who were not in favor, he urged coming together.
“We have to keep an eye on the target: quality education for our kids,” Palestis said.
Construction of the two middle schools is scheduled to begin this summer, and the project will take 14-18 months to complete, officials said.
On the average assessed home valued at $327,486, taxpayers can expect an annual increase of $105 on their tax bills beginning in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, equating to a $9 monthly increase. The district will receive $3.8 million in debt service aid from the state, driving the tax impact down nearly $20 from $124.55.
Officials are projecting a 3-4% interest rate over a 25-year payoff period, but will not know the exact impact until the bonds are sold in July, Board Secretary Brooke Bartley said.
As a permanent solution to rectify the overcrowding issue in the district’s six elementary schools and two middle schools precipitated by an influx of roughly 100 new students each year in the last five years and expected to grow, Palestis recommended freeing up space in the elementary schools by relocating the fifth grade to the middle schools and expanding them.
Roughly $11.4 million of improvements will add nine new classrooms to Memorial Middle School. The media center will be expanded by 3,000 square feet.
In Thomas Jefferson, $11.9 million in improvements will add 14 new classrooms and a “cafetorium” or multi-purpose room for the fifth-grade. Kitchen upgrades and new elevators to link the two-story buildings are also included in the renovation plan.
For approximately $600,000, both middle schools and the high school will receive air-conditioning.
An examination of enrollment trends from 2013-2023 indicated enrollment growth at the district saw a steady uptick of roughly 100 new students each year – a trend that two district demographers say will continue in the next five resulting in 500 additional students. While some residents at previous board meetings expressed skepticism over the accuracy of these numbers, the figures were confirmed by the demographers who also noted students would come from new housing projects in the district which include the Landmark at Radburn residential development.
School officials also attribute Fair Lawn’s rapid population growth to the district’s prestigious educational system and a high turnover rate of senior citizens selling their homes to younger families.
A soft borders policy currently in place that mandates new homeowners’ children in Grades K-5 subject to a school reassignment different from the one corresponding to their address will be scrapped upon completion of the project in two years, officials said.
To date, the district has 5,098 students, according to the most recent enrollment tally. The increasing enrollment numbers have prompted concerns from parents and teachers alike. Since January, teachers have been teaming up with education leaders to encourage residents to vote in favor of the referendum, citing limited classroom space to accommodate every child. Once the new buildings are complete, each classroom will have up to 25 students, Palestis said.
In a survey garnering feedback from district teachers and parents about the reconfiguration last year, 75 percent of people polled said to keep the fifth grade separate from the middle school and treat them like elementary school students, who remain in a single classroom with one teacher for all academic subjects to make for a smooth transition.
School administration visited other districts in Bergen County late last year that also have 5-8 middle schools and learned they experienced no “insurmountable challenges” with the new configuration.