FAIR LAWN - The Fair Lawn Board of Education took the first step Monday night moving forward with the interim superintendent's idea that would realign the district’s elementary and middle schools to help alleviate safety concerns attributed to rising enrollment.

On Aug. 21, the board – with the exception of trustee Jeffrey Klein, who abstained – passed a resolution approving a project that would realign the district’s six elementary schools and two middle schools.

Residents will then have the final say in an upcoming referendum vote, date not yet announced.

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According to a “Recommendations for Facility Expansion August 2017” report, the cost of the realignment is yet to be determined, although the estimated cost for construction on the two middle schools, the key component in the plan, is estimated at nearly $12 million.

The “administration will continue to work with the board’s architect, financial advisors and bond counsel to identify the facilities needs and to pursue debt service aid available through the State of New Jersey,” the report stated. “The goal of administration is to minimize impact to the taxpayers of Fair Lawn while providing the best education possible to the students of Fair Lawn. Financial Advisors will continue to monitor the bond market and update estimates as we move closer to the bond sale date.”

The capital project calls for the borough’s elementary schools, which include Forrest, Lyncrest, Radburn, Warren Point, Westmoreland and Milnes, (currently K-5s) to become K-4 schools, while the borough’s 6-8 middle schools, Thomas Jefferson and Memorial, be realigned to a fifth, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade configuration.

The project will include additions to Thomas Jefferson and Memorial Middle Schools, as well as various improvements at other schools yet to be determined, the resolution states.

In a LAN architectural report, dated Aug. 23, several construction options were addressed. Renovations for the middle schools to accommodate the proposed plan are estimated to be $11.7 million, $5.84 per school.

The expansion for Memorial would increase the building 12,500 square feet and add 11 potential classrooms. For Thomas Jefferson, it would increase the building 13,300 square feet and add 12 potential classrooms.

As outlined in the resolution, officials believe a new configuration is necessary given an increase in enrollment and thus, a need for additional classroom space. On the district’s official website, it is noted that as of late, enrollment is over capacity in the elementary schools, which all have large class sizes, and that capacity is expected to exceed capacity in the middle schools.

The change, Interim Superintendent Dr. Ernest Palestis’ idea, would free up much needed classroom space in the elementary schools.

At the meeting, a parent pointed out, for example, there were 709 students at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, inching closer to the capacity of 720 pupils. She added that three of those students are in wheelchairs and said overcrowded hallways are a safety hazard at the school. She  mentioned disciplinary issues, as well, given overcrowded lunch periods.

“We do need upgrades to the schools now,” she said, adding that drop-off is a “nightmare.”

Trustees were onboard with the plan.

“The fifth and sixth graders definitely have an identity,” said trustee Michael Rosenberg. “The seventh- and eighth-graders have an identity. What happens sometimes is I think the seventh- and eighth-graders have more developmental issues in adolescence and what happens in a 5, 6, 7, 8 school sometimes is the seventh- and eighth-grade actually takes up all the energy, kind of, of the administration, and the fifth- and sixth-graders may not get everything that they could to better the fifth- and sixth-grade.”

He continued, “I think Dr. “Palestis’ idea of having an administrator for the fifth- and sixth-grade and a house for fifth- and sixth-grade and a house for the seventh- and eighth-grade… I think that definitely alleviates that problem for me.”

Rosenberg pointed to the success of other neighborhood districts that have a 5-8 middle school configuration, namely, Paramus, Hillsdale, Closter and Old Tappan.

Palestis said he plans to engage the parents and faculty in a survey asking them their opinions on transportation and staffing costs, including the addition of guidance counselors at the middle schools.

The board is currently consulting with engineering firm LAN Associates to begin preparing schematic plans and educational specifications for the project. The architect is expected to make a presentation on the proposal, Board President Eugene Banta said.

Apart from the project realignment proposal, which will be sent to the Commissioner of Education Kimberley Harrington to amend the district’s Long Range Facilities plan, the board took other proactive measures to help alleviate future enrollment congestion in the schools.

In March, the board introduced a “soft borders” policy that, if adopted, would make 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 if the one in their district is overcrowded. The policy would not apply to Fair Lawn residents (with or without children) who lived in the borough before July 1. 

Currently, an online petition exists called “Change the Fair Lawn Soft Borders Policy” and is backed by 162 of the 200-needed supporters. In it, residents are petitioning the board of education to revise the policy before voting to adopt it. They include specifying a yearly early registration date to give incoming Fair Lawn residents a guaranteed spot in their grade level in their respective neighborhood school, as well as having children assigned to their respective school on a first-come, first-serve basis. The petition asks that a Residents’ Advisory Committee be formed via resolution to increase resident involvement on the enrollment issue.

Apart from this petition, another is circulating regarding the proposed configurations with about 200 resident signatures. At the meeting Monday, a man read a letter on his wife’s behalf stating that many residents are against the proposal given the possible tax burden and pointed to the fact that constituents will have ultimately have final say in the referendum.

Board members, however, agreed “the referendum needs to pass.”

“The referendum is important to get passed,” said Trustee Ron Barbarulo. “We have no space. Where are we going to put the kids?”

And if the referendum doesn’t pass?

“Back to square one,” Banta said.