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Record, Thursday, May 8, 1997

Merger defeat serves to revive old school plans

By TERESA M. McALEAVY
Staff Writer

School officials in Hasbrouck Heights and Wood-Ridge spent Wednesday weighing their options, one day after a plan to join the two districts was defeated for a second time by Hasbrouck Heights' voters.

With defeat of the merger, each community still faces the problems that twice prompted the regionalization plan: School buildings in Wood-Ridge are underutilized, and classrooms in Hasbrouck Heights, where enrollment is increasing, are crowded.

"The board has discussed the reality that if it wasn't passed there would be no sour grapes," said Howard Herbert, superintendent in Hasbrouck Heights. "Now we will try and get the second alternative, which is a building and renovation program, through."

In Hasbrouck Heights, the plan was rejected Tuesday by a vote of 1,711 to 1,378. The tally was much closer this time than in 1993, when Heights residents vetoed the idea by a 3-1 ratio. Wood-Ridge residents, who approved the plan four years ago, did so again Tuesday by a vote of 1,073 to 308. To pass, a majority of residents in each town had to support the merger plan.

With the election over, the first order of business in Wood-Ridge is to find a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Robert Smith, who will vacate the position June 30 to accept the same job in the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School District.

"In Wood-Ridge, we really have the same three options we always had," Smith said Wednesday. "We can stay independent, regionalize with some other district, or close the high school and send the students out somewhere on a tuition basis."

Wood-Ridge trustee Gerald Caputo has said the district will likely consider sending its students to Becton Regional High School in East Rutherford.

Becton officials, with 445 high school students in a building designed to accommodate 800, say they would be glad to have Wood-Ridge join their district.

"About five years ago we had meetings with Wood-Ridge, and told them we'd be very happy to continue talks," said Samuel Feldman, Becton's superintendent. "With the vote [to merge Hasbrouck Heights and Wood-Ridge schools] defeated, they may want to come back and talk to us. And we'd be very happy to talk."

Some Wood-Ridge residents, feeling bitter that Hasbrouck Heights has rejected the merger for a second time in four years, welcome the idea of courting Becton.

"I would like to see us regionalize with Becton, or anybody but the Heights," said Lisa O'Beirne, a Wood-Ridge mother of three who grew up in Hasbrouck Heights.

O'Beirne, who originally favored the plan to merge Wood-Ridge and Hasbrouck Heights schools, said she decided to vote against it at the last minute on Tuesday.

"Knowing that they [Hasbrouck Heights] were so against it really made me change my mind because I don't want my kids going where they're not wanted," she said. "Some people in Heights think we're a bunch of lowlifes in Wood-Ridge. It's a rival thing, and I just don't understand. My house is nicer than any house in Heights."

Hasbrouck Heights resident David Roche, a former school trustee who adamantly opposes merging with Wood-Ridge, said he doesn't believe inter-town rivalry is the issue.

"I have friends in Wood-Ridge, [and] I think they're nice people," Roche said. "But I'm a businessman, and this was a bad deal for Hasbrouck Heights."

Roche said he hopes school trustees in his community will move forward with a plan to build and renovate.

"I will support building, but I don't believe the numbers the board is coming up with," he said. "It's not going to cost $9 million, that was just a tactic by the board to scare people into voting for regionalization."

In Wood-Ridge, meanwhile, outgoing Superintendent Smith, who initiated the original plan to regionalize, said he hopes school trustees will drop the idea of merging with Hasbrouck Heights and concentrate on other options.

"We've been through it twice, and both times it was defeated in Heights," Smith said. "Since then, there has been resentment on the part of the Wood-Ridge community. It's time to look at something else."

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