The last two or three weeks have been an interesting time for me. I am not normally inclined to enter into civic debates like the one happening in Nutley right now over the $70mm+ construction bond referendum. Traditionally, I have found myself keeping to the sidelines with the hope that the powers that be have things under control. This referendum took me off of the sidelines and I hope through this letter I can get other Nutley citizens to engage as well.
My wife is a Nutley native and I grew up across the border in Belleville. I often joke of the ‘upgrade’ I felt Nutley was. The schools were better, the main street is picturesque, and the parks system is one of the best in the state (planned using designs by the Olmsted Brothers). Nutley is a short trip to Manhattan and my work takes me into the city often so that made sense too. Lastly, it was near to our friends and family. It was an easy choice 10 years ago.
Today Nutley is still an amazing place to live, work and play but there are issues looming that threaten the future of this town. Over the last decade, I have watched in stunned embarrassment as more and more ‘temporary classroom’ spaces (trailers) were added to our grammar school grounds. Our school system was growing and the township was ill prepared to deal with it. More children were enrolled in Yantacaw and Washington elementary schools than the buildings could hold. Class sizes had swelled and student to teacher ratios were as high as 28 or 30 to 1.
The overcrowding is now having a real impact on our educators' ability to provide the best learning environment for our kids. Our teachers are being asked to do far more with much less. Classes are being held in closets. Sections are being combined. I know of one gym class that is being held in a hallway. This was not the Nutley Public School system I had grown up knowing or was excited to buy into when we closed on our house. This was not a school system I would be inclined to pick if I were buying a home here today. We can and should expect better.
That’s where this referendum comes in. The BOE stepped up to deliver a comprehensive strategy to alleviate an overcrowding issue that’s been building for years. The plan is to significantly expand four of the township’s schools (Yantacaw, Washington, JHWMS and NHS). Nearly two dozen new classrooms will be added and the temporary classroom spaces will be removed. Outdoor spaces will be returned to our kids instead of occupied by trailers. Technology upgrades will be implemented. Most importantly, our current overcrowding issue will be addressed and there will even be room for more kids as the town continues to grow (and it will). Every time I drive by Yantacaw, the school my seven year old attends, I silently grumble to myself, “When will they get rid of those awful trailers”. Finally, there is a plan to do that.
So, I started talking to people. I reached out to other parents, neighbors, people on Facebook hoping to spread the word and get the referendum passed. Many people support it and will vote for it tomorrow. Some will not. Their main argument is over taxation and misappropriation. My counter point has always been that Nutley is a town with a high tax burden. We live in one of the most heavily taxed counties in the state and one of the most heavily taxed regions in the world. I understand that it add ups but this is a fact of life here. I do not want higher property taxes, no one does.
When was the last time the township specifically itemized for you what they will deliver because of your higher tax bill though? In this case they are. We’re getting a huge upgrade to our school system, which will buoy the housing prices around here for years to come. Preservation of market values is a benefit to all citizens, not just those of us with kids in the school system. We can and should expect that with overcrowding addressed our school rankings will improve as well. All of the other amenities I mentioned above, coupled with our reinforced school system, will draw new investment in this town by millennial families and businesses. This is the Nutley I hope we’re heading toward.
I understand that this vote is enormously personal to people in Nutley. I agree that the Planning Board, Zoning Board, Commissioners and BOE must work together more to ensure these measures are not overwhelmed by more overcrowding. I understand that people are hesitant based on the track record of previous BOE referendums but keep in mind that this is entirely new BOE. I understand that any increase for some citizens may end up being more than they can handle. However, the problem with our schools exists right now.
As I pen this letter, there are kids being instructed in a closet. We cannot afford to defer these decisions to a later date in hopes of achieving some sort of civic panacea.
We must act now, decisively, to ensure the future of this town and the happiness of its residents.