Monday October 27, 2008
BY JOSEPH AX
At least eight districts in Bergen County have made last-minute decisions to close their schools on Election Day in anticipation of a massive wave of voters.
County election officials have asked most districts to close, warning that a massive turnout for the presidential election could cause serious security and parking problems.
“You’d have hundreds and hundreds of people in the schools, potentially,” said Hackensack schools chief Edward Kliszus, who announced Oct. 15 that his schools would be closed. “On Election Day, the entire school ends up being open to adults that you don’t know. If it’s just a handful of people coming in, that’s one thing, but if you have hundreds.”
School officials in Bogota, Cliffside Park, Elmwood Park, Englewood, Hackensack, Palisades Park, Teaneck and Tenafly also will make Nov. 4 a day off for students and staff, joining dozens of other districts in the county that were already scheduled to be closed to teachers, students or both, election officials said.
Cliffside Park had scheduled a staff-only day but decided to close completely.
“The No. 1 issue is safety,” said John Czeterko, the superintendent of schools in Teaneck. “You get a lot of strangers in the building.”
A sampling of Passaic districts shows that Wayne and Pompton Lakes made decisions early in the school year to close on Election Day. Schools in West Milford, Ringwood, Wanaque, Butler, Pequannock, Lincoln Park and Kinnelon are expected to have classes.
Bergen districts that have decided to take the day off will use one of their allotted emergency days, usually employed for snow days.
Overall, 46 Bergen County districts will either be closed to students or have half days. About two dozen of those districts will ask teachers to stay for staff development, which could limit parking at some schools.
County Superintendent of Elections Patricia DiCostanzo said she and county Superintendent of Schools Aaron Graham hope to persuade as many districts as possible to shut down to avoid possible chaos inside the buildings. Half-days may not be enough of a solution, given the number of voters that could flood polling places early, she said.
“It’s the safest thing to do,” she said. “You can’t lock the doors. You can’t buzz them in. It’s going to be a free-for-all with people walking in.”
The county has seen a spike in registered voters to 544,000 from 483,000 since Election Day last year, an increase of more than 12 percent. The county processed 15,000 new registrations in the first two weeks of October alone.
Those numbers are testament to the level of excitement surrounding the contest between Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The presidential primary earlier this year — particularly on the Democratic side, which pitted Obama against New York Sen. Hillary Clinton — saw a record number of voters statewide.
The Election Day school closings come at an inconvenient time for some districts. The annual teachers’ convention has already ensured that public schools statewide will be shuttered on Thursday and Friday following the election.
“The week is very short,” said Eugene Westlake, the interim superintendent in Tenafly.
Nevertheless, he said, security concerns and the potential disruption to classes convinced him that closing the schools was the proper move.
The last-minute closings could mean some working parents will now have to find child care. In Teaneck, the district is offering limited babysitting service through a youth agency headquartered at the high school.
Not all districts have accepted the county’s recommendations. In Leonia, where two of the three public schools serve as polling places, the board determined that school could remain open.
“We felt we could manage the concerns and keep school going,” Superintendent Bernard Josefsberg said. The district is adding security to prevent any problems, he said.
“Everyone in Leonia knows that parking, even on a normal school day is tight, and that’s not going to change on Election Day. You hope that people will recognize that and plan accordingly.”
Some districts that will remain open on Election Day are trying to accommodate voters. In Glen Rock, for example, teachers will be asked to park elsewhere to free space in school lots.