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Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex School takes legal action against New Brunswick Board of Education

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The Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex School held a press conference yesterday to announce legal action being taken against the New Brunswick Board of Education. The Coalition's goal is to prevent the sale of the school in order to build an extension of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ).

Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of the civil rights organization LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and Ivette Ramos Alvarez, an attorney, are filing the first lawsuit against the Board of Education in Middlesex County Superior Court.

The plaintiffs include Maria Juarez, Julio Herrera and Maria Chiquito, parents of Lincoln Annex School students, as well as Henry Rutgers Term Chair and Assistant Professor in Latino and Caribbean Studies and History Lilia Fernández, a New Brunswick resident, Cartagena said.

Cartagena said the lawsuit is important because the Board of Education is moving forward with these plans despite the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which he said impedes the public's ability to stay involved.

"It is beyond belief that the New Brunswick Board of Education would accelerate, would speed up, would do everything possible to reduce participation in these complex plans instead of slowing things down (due to) the pandemic," he said.

The lawsuit will also involve the Diocese of Metuchen, Cartagena said. The Daily Targum previously reported Cartagena began investigating the Lincoln Annex School situation in February. He found that the property, which was purchased by the Board of Education in 2013 from St. Peter's Catholic Church, came with the restriction that the land must be used for public education or for public administrative offices for at least 50 years.

Fernández said the children should not be displaced for the sake of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) and the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) because it could disrupt their learning process and put their well-being at risk. She said the hospital can easily find other areas to build the expansion for the Rutgers CINJ.

"This project is being done on the back of working class Latino children from immigrant families who have absolutely nothing to do with RWJ(UH) and Rutgers CINJ's expansion plans and they should not have to pay the cost for this," she said.

Juarez said she has been attending Board of Education meetings in the past months and felt the information released about the plans has been unclear. She also said the Board repeatedly dismissed the concerns that she and other parents brought up regarding the sale of the school.

"I have three children, and I can honestly say that this is one of the best schools that my children have attended and it is very important for my daughter as well," Juarez said. "She has motivated me more than anything to come out and speak against what we know is not only not right, (but is also) very disrespectful."

The second legal measure being taken is a lawsuit filed by Charlie Kratovil, editor of New Brunswick Today, against the Board of Education for alleged violations of the Open Public Meetings Act. The Targum previously reported Kratovil felt the Board was committing violations back in February after holding votes for resolutions not listed on their agenda and preventing some members of the audience from participating in the public comments section of the meeting.

"Unfortunately the pandemic has only emboldened these officials and they continue to violate our rights to be participants in their meetings and to have meaningful public input," he said.

The Board of Education must appear before the court to respond to Kratovil's complaint by June 3, according to legal documents signed by Judge Vincent LeBlon.

The third legal measure being taken is a complaint filed with New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet by Juan González, professor of professional practice in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies. He is calling on the commissioner to reject the Board of Education's proposed changes to its Long-Range Facilities Plan, which would allow for the demolition of the school and reconstruction of a new one as long as the state approves.

"My complaint asserts that the Board of Education violated state law by first not submitting its plans to the New Brunswick Planning Board for approval and that it also violated state regulations by not allowing meaningful participation," González said.

He said the city is trying to act as though the sale of the school is finalized so it can begin demolishing the school as early as July, which is why the members of the Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex School felt it was important to move forward with litigation.

Later that night, members of the Coalition attended the virtual Board of Education meeting. The Board voted to reaffirm and reapprove the March 24 changes to the Long-Range Facilities Plan, the April 28 resolutions to submit documents to the New Jersey Department of Education regarding the disposition of the old school, the acquisition of a new school and the schematic design for the new school, as well as an older resolution authorizing Business Administrator Richard Jannarone to execute an exchange agreement with DEVCO or its affiliate.

The public comment portion of the meeting was limited to 1 hour and the Board could not reply to questions about the sale of the school due to the newly filed lawsuits.

Julienne LaChance, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, has been outspoken at past meetings regarding the contamination issues at the site of the replacement school. At last night's meeting, she called to further address the issues as well as the conduct of Board of Education Vice President Dale Caldwell, who she said sent her a "hateful email" accusing her of being paid to oppose the sale of the school.

The Board said she should not be commenting on the issues regarding the school district because she does not live in the city, despite allowing her to speak at past meetings. Kratovil said afterward that any New Jersey taxpayer should be allowed to comment on the issues in New Brunswick because the school district receives state funding.

"This is outrageous. People signed up to speak, you called on them and then when you don't like what they say, you bully them and question them about what town they live in and give them a hard time," he said. "You guys act like children. You look really, really foolish, and this is no way to run a public meeting."

González said at the meeting that he recently received documents from Jannarone that he requested in April regarding the sale of the school.

He said one of the documents states the Cancer Institute cannot be built without the removal of the deed restriction and asked whether the Board was looking to remove the restriction imposed by St. Peter's Church in 2013. Board Attorney George Hendricks said this issue was currently being negotiated but typically the answer would be yes.

González also said the documents he received show that the proposed replacement school is going to house kindergarten through eighth grade classes, while the current school only houses fourth through eighth grade students. He asked whether the entire New Brunswick school district would be reorganized due to this and members of the Board said yes.

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