For students at Cresskill's flood-damaged high school, it all comes down to referendum

·3 min read

CRESSKILL — Since a flood ravaged the middle and high school building, causing over $20 million in damage, parents and students have fought for two things: swift repairs and a return to in-person instruction.

The fate of both is on the line Tuesday. That's when residents will vote on a $21 million spending proposal for repairs — 75% of which will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And Tuesday night, the Northvale zoning board will determine if students can return to classrooms.

Since September about 1,000 middle and high school students have been learning remotely the majority of the week. Two grades attend in person once every four days on a rotating schedule at the St. Thérèse of Lisieux Church school in Cresskill.

The remnants of Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on the Cresskill middle and high school building, which sits in a flood zone on Lincoln Drive. Several feet of water rose above the auditorium stage, destroying it and the gymnasium, the media center, desks and chairs.

Story continues below gallery

The Chodae Community Church has offered its educational center to the school district for the remainder of the year. The church and its 100,000-square-foot educational facility is just over the border in Northvale, but used only on the weekends.

"We are in the final stages of finalizing the lease," Superintendent Michael Burke said. "They are a wonderful community of people who heard our situation and wanted to help."

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, when residents will vote on approving the $21.66 million for school repairs. Burke said the district may not need that much money, but only had one chance to request the funds.

Tom Schillaci, the supervisor of buildings and grounds for Cresskill Public Schools, gives a tour of the flood damaged Cresskill Middle/High School on Friday Jan. 21, 2022. Schillaci shows how high the water rose in the boiler room. Voters will be asked to approve a referendum to fix the damage next week.
Tom Schillaci, the supervisor of buildings and grounds for Cresskill Public Schools, gives a tour of the flood damaged Cresskill Middle/High School on Friday Jan. 21, 2022. Schillaci shows how high the water rose in the boiler room. Voters will be asked to approve a referendum to fix the damage next week.

All four boilers and all univents and water pumps need to be repaired or replaced. The boilers, which will cost $5 million to $6 million to repair, carry the biggest price tag.

The univents in all 52 rooms were damaged by saltwater that originated at the DPW salt garage when floodwaters flowed through that building.

The district did have flood insurance, but because the school is built in a flood zone, the maximum amount it was allowed to purchase was $2 million, which was spent just removing the water from the school.

Parents have rallied for help from the governor's office locally and in Trenton. A parents group is going door to door to inform residents about the vote.

"Tuesday will be a really exciting day for us," Burke said. "We've been in limbo. It's not fair, but natural disasters aren't fair. Our community keeps coming together for the common good."

More: These two Bergen towns will hold special elections on school repairs costing over $20M

The media center at Cresskill Middle/High School was damaged badly by flooding. Shown on Friday Jan. 21, 2022. Voters will be asked to approve a referendum to fix the damage next week.
The media center at Cresskill Middle/High School was damaged badly by flooding. Shown on Friday Jan. 21, 2022. Voters will be asked to approve a referendum to fix the damage next week.

If approved, the funds will be spent gradually, Burke said, releasing bonds as needed with "full transparency." The district already has plans to write purchase orders 20 days after the election, which is the deadline to contest the results.

"This is the most time-efficient, cost-effective and reliable solution," Burke said. "We are laser-focused on getting the students back into school for the fall of 2022."

Besides watching for election results, all eyes will also be on the Northvale zoning board, which must approve the use of the Chodae school at its meeting Tuesday night.

The school will be large enough to have all students and teachers in one place, every day.

The Department of Education and security experts have already toured the location. If the board approves the use, Burke said the lease will be signed shortly after with students using the building "very soon."

Plans are being worked out to borrow buses from neighboring towns to transport all the students. Bergenfield and Dumont have offered to help pick up and drop off students, Burke said. In order to not overlap, the school day might change from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., "which is better than what we have right now — it's really great," Burke said.

Kristie Cattafi is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: cattafi@northjersey.com

Twitter: @KristieCattafi

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Cresskill school flooded by Ida could get repair funds in referendum