HACKENSACK, NJ -- A large group of residents voiced their opposition to a school bond referendum scheduled for a public vote on January 22 at the Hackensack City Council meeting on Tuesday evening.
Mayor John Labrosse and several city council members also spoke out against the plan, which involves renovating every existing school and constructing a new Middle School next to the current high school at a projected cost of over $170 million.
“Nobody on this council or Board of Education wants renovations more than I do,” Councilwoman Stephanie Von Rudenborg said. The councilwoman is a former educator with two children attending city schools. “I am simply requesting that we take into consideration several important unresolved factors that we do not have answers to as of yet.”
Those include the possibility of Maywood, Rochelle Park and South Hackensack students leaving Hackensack. At Maywood’s request, the state is currently reviewing a feasibility study to have its students transferred to another district. Von Rudenborg also pointed out that the school district has not completed a “re-registration program” that would determine how many out of town students attend city schools without authorization and at great expense to taxpayers.
Board of Education Trustee Leila Amirhamzeh detailed the planned renovations included in the renovation and discussed the age of Hackensack’s schools.
“Unfortunately, our wonderfully historic buildings are very old - on average, about 100 years old,” Amirhamzeh said. “That means a lot of these facilities are no longer suitable in terms of infrastructure and environments for today’s learning.”
Deputy Mayor Kathleen Canestrino pointed out she and Councilwoman Von Rudenborg have been a part of monthly meetings with the Board of Education since last summer regarding this topic.
“One of the things we’ve asked for since the very beginning is to look for a phased-in approach,” Canestrino said. “There are four events - New construction, alterations, renovations and HVAC upgrades. We think there should be four questions [on the ballot].”
Canestrino stated while some residents may vote to approve all four, they would at least have choices, instead of an all-or-nothing referendum. School officials rejected that idea and moved ahead with the referendum.
“The council has asked repeatedly for one, three and five-year plans, primarily because that’s what we’ve been doing in the city,” Canestrino said. “You’ve seen the changes over the past five years and that’s because we do short-term and longer-term planning. When we came in to office, we saw every street in Hackensack needed to be paved. We couldn’t possibly do it all in one year without killing our taxpayers. What we do is we pick a certain number and we work our way through it. Our expectation was that the Board of Education would do the same.”
Many residents who spoke during the public comments shared the Mayor and Council’s opposition to the referendum.
“I thought Teaneck politics was rough until I came here and saw the politics of this Hackensack Board of Education,” said former Teaneck councilman and current Hackensack resident Martin Cramer. “The Board of Education cannot, by law, advocate anything having to do with a school referendum. It is illegal for them to put their thumb on the scale and say ‘Vote for this’ and that’s what they’ve been doing.”
“We have to count on you to right this wrong because this is not right,” resident Bill Burzak told the council.
“All we’re asking for is to split the referendum,” said resident Robert Grayson. “The arrogance of not splitting the referendum - of only giving us one choice - is absurd. All we’re asking is to postpone and the referendum be split.”
Regina DiPasqua, a frequent critic of the Mayor and Council, was the only resident to speak in favor of the referendum. “For years now you’ve been saying we need a new school, but now you’re saying maybe we don’t need a new school. And this is the farce you guys have been playing up here.”
Councilman Leo Battaglia compared the situation to his own home, which he said was built over a century ago.
“I’ve been fixing the house - the roof, the siding, the boiler - but everything by priorities,” he explained. “No way you’re going to take a house and you’re going to do the roof, the windows, the siding, the boiler, the kitchen and on top of that, you’re going to buy a brand new car? Never happen. I would like to see school improvements in phases and by priority.”
In response to a remark made during the public comment portion of the meeting that he “never takes his Mayor’s Hat off,” Mayor John Labrosse later left the dais and came down to the podium and spoke into the same microphone residents use to address the council.
“I am 100 percent in favor of renovating these schools,” Labrosse said. “I am 100 percent in favor of putting air-conditioning in these schools and windows - whatever they need. My wife teaches in a classroom where it reaches 90 degrees and she has to keep the windows closed because the Teterboro noise is so loud. What I don’t agree with is the new school.”
Labrosse said that school officials have failed to prove that building a new school at a cost of over $100 million is necessary.
The Mayor later said he had just seen the actual ballot and was disappointed at misleading language contained in the ballot question regarding the tax impact on Hackensack residents. He has previously criticized school officials for incorrectly stating that the $170 million “includes all interest costs.”
“The truth is that with borrowing costs, this is really a $300 million project and that does not include the additional cost of hiring more teachers, administrators and other staff members and operating a new building,” Labrosse added in an interview after the meeting.
School officials stated that the owner of a home assessed at $245,000 would see a $308 increase. Labrosse says his own taxes would increase by more than $400 -- a sentiment echoed by other homeowners. “They are asking the voters to approve too much at one time and hitting the taxpayers harder than necessary, “ the mayor added. “That’s why I cannot support this referendum.”
Councilwoman Von Rudenborg added that the January 22 referendum is just one step in a longer process if it is defeated by voters. She said that school officials can come back with a smaller plan and a phased in approach that voters would have the opportunity to approve in the near future.