The future remains uncertain for a controversial and currently under-utilized Clifton school annex with school officials discussing potential plans this week.
Tony Gicas/

CLIFTON – A motion that would have provided more than $1 million in relief for taxpayers failed to pass after a spirited debate among school board commissioners on Wednesday night.

The measure required a two-thirds vote, but only four of seven trustees present backed the motion. 

The district received notice on July 14 that Clifton would receive an increase of 13 percent on the initial $26.5 million proposed for the school system in 2018 state aid. The modified spending plan includes $3,475,797 in additional funding from the New Jersey Department of Education and a total of about $30 million budgeted for the next school year.

Officials said the state gave local school boards an Aug. 1 deadline to designate how much, if any, of the new aid would be reallocated as a tax reduction.

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Board Attorney Matthew Giacobbe said any potential tax relief would be tied into adjusting the city’s third-quarter tax bills so it can spread the savings over the final two quarters of 2017.

Alternatively, the Clifton Board of Education was permitted to hold all or part of the $3.47 million for future budget considerations such as capital projects. Giacobbe said a decision will have to be made about the remaining money before the end of the fiscal year.

However, school trustees were divided on how to utilize the funding during its Wednesday meeting.

After a meeting last week, Commissioner Jim Daley said the finance committee, consisting of Fahim Abedrabbo, Larry Grasso and Daley, recommended a 1 percent reduction in the tax levy that amounts to $1,282,458. The remaining $2.2 million would be held for the 2018-19 spending plan, Daley said.

The $1.2 million reduction would constitute about $42 in annual tax relief on the average Clifton home, assessed at $177,000, officials said.

“So we’re talking about, on average, about $4 a month that we’re giving back to the taxpayers as relief,” Commissioner Rosemary Pino said. “As a taxpayer myself, that amount is very minimal.”

Citing the opinion of Business Administrator Edward Appleton, Pino said the district would be better served if the school board waited and held back any form of tax relief until the state reveals in April whether Clifton can expect another $3.4 million in aid for the 2018-19 budget.

“The status of the district’s state aid, as we go forward, is an unknown,” Appleton said. “Whether it will stay at the enhanced level or drop down to what it was before, we simply don’t know.”

Appleton said waiting until next spring would put the school district in a position of “greater knowledge and understanding.”

Other commissioners, like Tafari Anderson, were conflicted about the issue.

Anderson said he would prefer to provide a 2 percent tax reduction but understood the reluctance of Pino and other trustees, such as Lucy Danny and Arlene Agresti, who advocated banking the money for next school year. He said the remaining money should be budgeted toward nonrenewable expenditures such as installing air conditioning inside the Clifton High School auditorium, which is estimated to cost $1.7 million.

“I totally disagree [with Pino],” Grasso said. “We now have a one-time opportunity to roll back to the taxpayers $1.2 million that we didn’t have when we started this process.  At this juncture, the state gave us $3.4 million, and a third of that should go back to the taxpayers.”

Abedrabbo said he was not prepared to put the money toward staffing if funding may not be available the following year. He said he is unwilling to lay off new hires and contended that Clifton senior citizens living on a fixed income would “feel” the tax break. 

The board approved the addition of nine new district positions on Wednesday.

Superintendent Richard Tardalo said the new hires — three paraprofessionals, three lunch aides, one speech pathologist, one resource teacher and one special education teacher — will be funded by the 2017-18 budget. 

If the district does not receive the additional $3.47 million in state aid next year and job cuts are required, Tardalo said the school system would likely lay off counselors or administrators.

Elementary school parent Joe Canova, who spearheaded an online petition to motivate legislators to fully fund Clifton, said the majority of the 2,300 people who signed the list wanted to see additional money spent on improving schools and not given back in taxes.

“We’re in desperate need for this money right now,” he said. “You can only starve for so long before you have to eat, and now is our time to eat.”

While many city school officials are skeptical, Canova remains optimistic that the $3.47 million in funding is not a “one and done” scenario.

According to data released by the New Jersey Department of Education, Clifton received the sixth-highest reallocation in New Jersey.

Commissioners Abedrabbo, Anderson, Daley and Grasso voted for the tax reduction. Commissioners Judith Bassford and Pino voted no. Danny abstained.

“I am highly disappointed by the outcome,” Daley said. “I don’t care if it’s $40 or $500 — why would you not show the taxpayers that we’re turning the corner? It’s a marathon, not a sprint, in terms of restoring funding.”

Board President Gary Passenti was absent, and Agresti, attending her first meeting in months due to health issues, left before the meeting ended. Agresti said Thursday that she would have voted no had she remained for the roll call.


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