HACKENSACK, NJ -- Tomorrow, voters will have a chance to weigh in on the proposed $170 million bond to upgrade existing public school facilities, and build a new Junior High School next to the High School.
The $170 million bond would mean the average homeowner would see a property tax increase of $308 per year. But language written by the BOE implied the $308 would be spread out over the 30 year loan. The Board refused to change the language, forcing a citizens group to file a lawsuit.
Hackensack Smart Schools Inc., a non-profit founded by Martin Cramer and other residents, filed the lawsuit against the BOE last week and won. The court called the board’s language “misleading” and ruled that voting machines must be edited to read "$308 per year over thirty years." Cramer says it is, “shameful that the Board could have fixed this so called error but flatly refused.”
The referendum is also being opposed by Mayor John Labrosse and City Council Members who believe it is too big and too expensive for taxpayers. The mayor’s own taxes would increase by over $400 and many other taxpayers would pay much more.
“We asked school officials to give voters the chance to approve a phased in approach that would finance necessary repairs and upgrades to all existing schools, but delay voting on a new school until we are certain that new construction is absolutely necessary,” said Deputy Mayor Kathy Canestrino. “But they insist on this all or nothing approach which is just too costly for our taxpayers.”
Of the $170 million, less than $70 million would go towards repairs to existing schools, which few, if any residents have openly objected to. The remainder, over $100 million before interest, and staffing and operating expenses, would go toward building a new grade 7-9 junior high school.
Acting School Superintendent Rosemary Marks has argued the new school is absolutely necessary, because the Board of Education currently spends $700,000 every year renting space from the Archdiocese of Newark due to overcrowding in the elementary schools.
“If we were to renovate currently without creating new space, we would not be able to get out of the $700,000 year rental without finding space elsewhere,” Marks said. “How do we justify investing in the redevelopment but leaving the schools behind? That's a big question for all of us to consider."
Other residents feel that repairs to existing schools should be made before a new school is built.
“All we’re asking for is to split the referendum,” said resident Robert Grayson at a recent Council meeting. “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.”
Board Member Johanna Calle has been very active on social media insisting that the plan cannot and should not be divided.
Mayor John Labrosse voiced his concerns in a letter to the Board of Education stating that the plan would be too much for some taxpayers to handle. Acting Superintendent Marks responded with a letter which is on the BOE’s website.
“I am 100 percent in favor of renovating these schools,” Labrosse said. “I am 100 percent in favor of air conditioning the schools. 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 spending over $100 Million on a new school when it is not clear that this is necessary.”
City officials point to the fact that Maywood is trying to remove their approximately 250 students who attend Hackensack High School and send them to schools in other towns. If Maywood is successful, referendum opponents believe building a new school is not necessary.
Councilwoman Stephanie Von Rudenborg, a public school parent and former educator, says she is also opposing the referendum because of “adverse educational issues.” Von Rudenborg is particularly opposed to building a new middle school for Grades 7 through 9. She believes that ninth graders should be experiencing life as a high school student, attending sporting events, joining clubs, striving for Advanced Placement classes and participating in other activities. “These ninth graders are high school freshmen and they should be in high school, not mixed in with grade school students.”
Von Rudenborg also dislikes the plan because all students in grades 3,4,5 and 6 would go to the current middle school on State Street in the Northern part of the city. “That would mean that over 1600 students would be in one school building,” she said. Some of the children, as young as 8 years old, would have to travel a great distance to get to the school and the district does not offer any busing. She believes this is dangerous and an unnecessary hardship for many parents.
School officials have also taken criticism from city officials and residents for a pattern of what they call honest mistakes resulting in the actual financial impact on homeowners being falsely minimized. Labrosse and Cramer were upset when materials distributed by the BOE claimed that the $170 Million cost, “includes all interest.” The actual cost with interest on the bond is over $300 Million. Board President Lara Rodriguez apologized but the Acting Superintendent repeated the same “mistake” again in a subsequent letter.
Mayor Labrosse and City Council members hope that school officials can present a less costly and more gradual plan that they say they would support if the referendum is defeated tomorrow.
Polls will be open from 2-8pm. Residents can find their polling place here.