Members of the Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex School have continued to organize against Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital’s (RWJUH) plans to build the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey on the land occupied by the school.
On Monday night, parents, activists, Rutgers students and other members of the New Brunswick community held a meeting to discuss the situation and how they plan to proceed. Jennifer Rios, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and the vice president of the Mexican American Student Organization, attended the meeting.
“One of the points they started off with is that any changes being made in the community need to be discussed with the community being affected directly,” Rios said.
Maria Juares, the mother of a sixth grade student at Lincoln Annex School, said school officials repeatedly lied to the parents about whether the school would be sold. Members of the Board of Education as well as Dr. Aubrey Johnson, the superintendent, dismissed the talk of selling the school as “rumors” back in November. The city continued to deny the project up until recently.
“Now I’m angry because just a month ago, two months ago you went and said (the sale of the school is) not true. Now you’re talking about it? City Hall just last week spoke about it,” Juares said. “What are you hiding? Why are you not telling us the truth?”
Juares said many parents in New Brunswick are not highly involved with what is going on in the school systems, which she believes makes it easier for city officials to make decisions that may not be in the students’ best interests. She found out about the situation in part from Escuelas Dignas, an organization that advocates for education within New Brunswick.
Miguel Romero-Trejos, a community activist with the Cosecha Movement, said city officials have been planning in secret for months.
“They’ve been planning it all along. They had the architects go (to the school), they had the engineers go there, check out the place, meanwhile they were denying there was any talk about the official situation happening,” Romero-Trejos said. “So they were already biding their time until the announcement was made public.”
Another potential issue with the purchase of the school is the fact that it was built only approximately three years ago, Rios said. A lawyer at the meeting said Diocese of Metuchen sold the land to New Brunswick with the restriction that it should be used as a school for at least 50 years.
“That means that the New Brunswick Board of Education paid millions of dollars only three and a half years ago just to tear (the school) down so soon,” Rios said.
The proposed site of the replacement school is on Jersey Avenue, which Rios said is outside of the students’ neighborhood in an industrial area with toxic chemicals, traffic and issues with crime. She said people believe the area could be dangerous for children.
“This is the future of New Brunswick, this is the future of New Jersey and your answer to that is ‘oh, we’re going to send them to a toxic place,’” Romero-Trejos said.
Romero-Trejos said the city has plans to start building the Cancer Institute, but it has not provided information about when the Jersey Avenue school will be built or how long it will take. City officials also declined to answer whether the school will be open come September 2020, Juares said.
In the interim, students would attend the Warehouse School, which is also outside of their neighborhood. Caritina Hernandez, the mother of a fifth grade student, said city officials will not provide buses for the students because the school is within a two mile radius of the neighborhood.
“Last week, when I was passing out flyers at the school … I found out there are very few people who go to the school with their kids. A majority of them go by themselves, because it's such a good area. And I asked myself, ‘how are all those kids going to be able to walk that long distance?’” Hernandez said.
As the members of the community continue to oppose the destruction of the Lincoln Annex School, RWJUH has recently started a public relations campaign advocating for the construction of its institute using the hashtag “Cancer Can’t Wait.” Rios said meeting attendees agreed the hospital is so eager to build the Cancer Institute because cancer treatment is highly expensive and could increase the hospital’s profits.
“It’s about greed, it’s about money. Obviously the school won't bring the city as much money as the Cancer Institute,” Rios said. “The hospital is trying to paint it so that anyone against the building of this Cancer Institute is 'pro-cancer.'”
Many of those who are advocating for the preservation of the Lincoln Annex School believe this situation is an example of gentrification.
“They think that the majority of people in New Brunswick don’t have documents, and it's a way to intimidate them or quiet them so they don’t demand. But in reality, the buildings they are building do not benefit us for anything,” Hernandez said.
Rios said the opposition to building the Cancer Institute on this land should be viewed as part of a larger issue.
“The selling of the school, it's not just about preserving kids (at) one school, it's about not allowing this bigger plan of gentrification in the city of New Brunswick,” Rios said. “In the last decade or so, there’s been so much displacement of working class families with Rutgers building new institutions, new buildings, RWJ coming in.”
Juares said many New Brunswick schools do not offer the same quality of education that is found in nearby towns. Although the Lincoln Annex School has more advanced resources and higher success rates compared to other schools in the city, she still said the Board of Education should focus on improving the school district as a whole.
“Instead of investing in our children’s education, why are you investing in your pockets? That speaks volumes of what you care about and (how you) respect us as human beings,” Juares said.
The Rutgers Board of Governors have an upcoming meeting on Feb. 18 and on Feb. 25 the New Brunswick Board of Education will meet. Members of the coalition to defend the school are planning on attending both to express their concerns.
Juares said she and the parents hope to stop the sale of the school, but will need widespread support from the community to get the attention of the city.
“I feel that they disrespected us as a community and they’ve undermined us, because when we speak in these meetings, they completely continue to ignore us,” Juares said. “If the superintendent was quick to shut the rumors down, why is he not equipped to answer to the cries of students, parents and community advocates?”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article stated that on Feb. 25 a City Council meeting would occur.