The New Brunswick Board of Education held a remote meeting last night and passed four measures to proceed with the sale of the Lincoln Annex School to build an extension of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
The resolutions include plans to get an appraisal for the site of the school as well as the preparation and submission of documents to the Department of Education regarding the disposition of the school site, the acquisition of a new site at 50 Jersey Ave. and the schematic design plan for the new site, according to the meeting's agenda.
Board of Education member Edward Spencer provided details regarding the new school in his facilities committee report. He said the new school will house approximately 350 additional students and will have a bus drop-off zone, a parent drop-off zone, a gymnasium, a cafeteria, a multipurpose room and a playground.
Despite the proposed plan, members of the community called into the meeting to reiterate their concerns regarding the sale of the school. Board of Education Vice President Dale Caldwell opened the public comment section of the meeting by addressing those who oppose the Board's plan.
Caldwell said the proposed replacement school will be bigger and have more amenities. He also said the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) health crisis should make people more open to the idea of constructing a Cancer Institute.
He read a letter sent by the president of the Lincoln Annex Parent Teacher Association in support of the sale of the school. Caldwell said this is evidence that the school replacement proposal is well-liked.
"No one knows more about what's going on than a parent at the school, so these outsiders who are coming in and are saying this is not good are really just playing a game," Caldwell said.
After reading the letter, he said those who "know nothing about the district" should stop trying to stop the sale of the school from going forward.
Caldwell's comments resulted in objections from some members of the public who attended the virtual meeting. Henry Rutgers Term Chair and Assistant Professor in Latino and Caribbean Studies and History Lilia Fernández spoke at the meeting and said Caldwell's treatment of the public was unfair.
"I'd like to ask why every time you open up for public comment … you preface it by making your own personal opinions and statements and scolding and warning us. Why do you demand that we address you with respect, when you clearly don't respect us citizens and residents of this city?" Fernández said.
Linda Stork, a New Brunswick resident and former teacher, said her experience as a teacher in the district, as well as a parent whose children attended schools in the district, should be enough for the Board to understand her interest in the Lincoln Annex School situation.
"I think I have somewhat of a background and have a credible opinion here, and to be told that I'm somebody who wants to sow division in the community and that I don't really have the interest of the children at heart, I don't even know where that's coming from," Stork said.
Juan González, professor of Professional Practice in Journalism and Media Studies, said the parent who wrote the letter Caldwell read was in the minority. The Daily Targum previously reported multiple parents of Lincoln Annex students have been vocal about their opposition to this plan.
"I want to congratulate the fact that you finally got, after four months, one parent to testify at a public meeting in favor of your plan," González said.
Charlie Kratovil, editor of New Brunswick Today, asked why the Board has yet to release the names of the members on the Long-Range Facilities Plan Committee that were appointed to review the plans for the replacement school.
González requested the names of the members through the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) on March 10, the Targum reported, and Board of Education Business Administrator Richard Jannarone told him at the time that the request could not be fulfilled until March 25 due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Yesterday, Jannarone said the request is still unfulfilled because it would require someone to go to the office. Kratovil asked why no one on the call could verbally provide the names of the members, especially since one of the Board members is on the committee.
"I also find it completely disingenuous that you would hide behind the crisis to not respond to (a) basic public records request," he said.
González said it was hard to believe the Board could not fulfill OPRA requests, yet could still convene for committee meetings to move forward with the sale of the school.
The contamination at the new school site was also discussed at the meeting. During his remarks at the start of the meeting, Spencer said the contamination at 50 Jersey Ave. is similar to contamination levels at all other New Brunswick schools prior to their construction.
Julienne LaChance, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, said she reviewed the site comparison report on the Board of Education's website.
"This report goes on to describe the presence of radon and volatile organic compounds at 50 Jersey Ave., the brownfield designation and the additional requirement for long term groundwater monitoring, as well as other substantial problems which are non-existent at the current Lincoln Annex School," she said. "Can you expand upon this conclusion, then, that there exists similar environmental conditions between the two school (sites), given these disparities?"
Jannarone said the Board's engineers will be able to successfully decontaminate and install a vapor intrusion barrier, but LaChance said the site's contamination levels are worse than previous construction sites and does not believe it is safe for children.
In addition to potential risks to students' physical health, Fernández brought up mental health implications for displaced students. She said the COVID-19 pandemic is resulting in economic, physical and psychological hardship for many New Jerseyans, including New Brunswick families. Demolishing the Lincoln Annex School and moving its current students to a renovated warehouse while the new school is being built will cause further hardship, she said.
"Why is it a good policy to disrupt their lives? Their families are going hungry right now, their parents are out of work, family members are dying as a result of this virus, and you want to add to their burden?" Fernández said. "If you were not convinced before the pandemic that this was a bad idea, I would think that the illness, woe, mayhem and complete despair that we are currently experiencing might soften your hard hearts and persuade you that this is morally reprehensible."
González said the community supports building a new, improved school, but said the school must be built before the Lincoln Annex School is demolished.
"What people are opposed to is that you want to have (approximately) 700 children dislocated for three years for building this school. Let Robert Wood Johnson build the building first, and then move them over there and then (Robert Wood Johnson) can have Lincoln Annex if they want to," he said.