More than a dozen mothers of children attending public pre-school in a building at 190 Ninth St. came to a March 26 meeting to urge the City Council to take a side in an ongoing battle between the city and the Board of Education over classroom space there.
The Jersey City Redevelopment Agency – which owns the Cordero Annex building and property – says it can no longer afford to rent the space to the school board for $1 per year for the pre-K classrooms, saying that the cost to the city is $750,000 plus maintenance. The site has 22 classrooms, only four of which are in use.
If the pre-K classrooms are moved, it will likely be to an area farther from the parents’ Hamilton Park neighborhood, which might require busing.
This comes at a time when the city expects to see a flood of new pre-K students in the upcoming year. There are currently about 4,500 pre-K students citywide, but not enough space in existing school buildings to house them.
Mayor Steve Fulop said the lack of pre-K space requires a comprehensive solution. Some pre-K facilities are housed in crowded trailers with pipes that freeze in winter. Other students are attending pre-K in storefronts. In some cases, students are being bused across the city. This will only get worse since the district faces a potential 25 percent increase of students over the next five years, much of this due to a growing pre-K student population.
“There is no other early childhood program across the city or state of New Jersey that would receive this type of public investment.” – Deputy Mayor Vivian Brady-Philips
The Annex is a former charter school built during the administration of Mayor Bret Schundler as a school and community center. It was used for years by Golden Door Charter School until it moved to a new location on Kennedy Boulevard a few years ago. For a brief time another charter school used the site, then also moved out.
Last year, the redevelopment agency evicted four classrooms from trailers on Bright Street to make way for redevelopment of a micro-residential project, but agreed to temporarily relocate those classrooms at the Annex.
School officials believe that it makes sense to maintain the pre-K at the annex. But they claim they cannot afford to lease the Annex to cover the city’s $750,000 obligation because the schools budget $14,500 per student, which would leave about $2,000 per student to cover other costs.
Jersey City parents fear the dispute between Mayor Steven Fulop and the school board will lead to the closing of the Annex and force them to keep their kids home or seek private pre-K arrangements.
Parents in the middle
More than 500 people have signed a petition to keep the Annex open for the upcoming year
Several council members have said they support letting the lease remain in place for another year. Parents who are caught in the middle of this dispute are concerned about having their 3 and 4 year olds bussed to another part of Jersey City.
They claim the city is being disingenuous in regards to the cost per student for using the Annex.
“The city will have to pay the $750,000 a year if there are students there or not,” said Matt Schapiro, president of the Hamilton Park Neighborhood Association and Downtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations.
Parents want the city and the school board to work it out so that the Annex remains a school, since it serves an area near Hamilton Park that has a rising population of children. Schapiro said with preschool registration already underway, many students currently don’t have a school to go to.
“Parents will have to keep their kids at home if they can’t find a private school,” he said. “These are people who bought into the system. The Board of Education is making alternative plans for bus routes and trailers in other areas.”
Last year, the parents didn’t know they were going to get use of the Annex until the summer.
“The problem is that if they kick the Board of Education out of that space, the city will still have no tenants so that the space will sit empty,” he said. “There is no other charter school in line that can afford the $750,000 cost.”
The school board has offered to lease space in other locations in the city, one of which is within two blocks of a school that has existing space.
Emily Williams, a property owner in the area, called overcrowded schools downtown a quality of life issue, noting that if the pre-K is crowded today, those students will flood upper-grades in the future. She has urged the city to work with the school district to resolve the conflict.
Pre-K numbers will keep climbing
Fulop said that the city has tried to solve the problem of lack of facilities by tying the construction of new pre-K classroom space to tax abatements granted to new construction. The policy intends to help develop new pre-K programs, including helping to offset the cost of leasing classroom space at Gloria Robinson, a new public housing facility that replaced the former Duncan Avenue Projects near Route 440.
“Under this new policy, developers can seek to obtain more generous abatements if they build school facilities at their cost and then subsidize longer-term rent,” said Deputy Mayor Vivian Brady-Philips in a March 31 letter to the school board.
Fulop had hoped the Board of Education would lease proposed new digs that would have been constructed by a developer who recently sought a variance near Journal Square. But the developer opted out of that arrangement, saying it would take too long to negotiate a deal with the school board.
Fulop said the Board of Education rejected the opportunity to lease the early childhood center at 360 Ninth St. at a substantially reduced rent, but has made lease offers on two other properties at Gloria Robinson Court Homes in Ward B and for a selected space for 60 pre-K students at 360 Ninth St. in Ward E.
The Gloria Robinson facility was proposed by the school board in 2008. Fulop said the cost for the construction of the new school facility there is about $364,000 less than projected in 2008 and has expanded the number of classrooms from six to eight to accommodate 120 students.
As a result, the annual lease payment for this property has been reduced to $300,000 per year or about $2,500 per child. The school board has offered to pay $1,300 per student and with the city willing to cover one third of the cost, a gap remains of about $266 per student.
The school board offer is on the low end of a range allowed by the state. The city has asked the school board to make up the difference per student which would allow it to meet the goals of providing an equal education for the neediest students.
The Fulop administration said it won’t give free rent to the school board for the Cordero Annex at Ninth Street when the Board of Education has failed to live up to its commitment to pay for pre-K in other parts of the city.
Last year, the city leased the Annex to the school board for $1 to accommodate about 60 children, forcing the city to pay $12,500 to meet the redevelopment agency’s costs. This is on top of the $12,842 the school board has budgeted for educating each child.
“There is no other early childhood program across the city or state of New Jersey that would receive this type of public investment,” Brady-Philips wrote. “Moreover, we find it hard to justify this request for such a significant subsidy while the city Board of Education, at the same time, is resisting a modest increase of $366 per child for Gloria Robinson, a project that can accommodate 120 students at $2,500 per student and helps ease overcrowding and reliance on temporary trailers.”
Freeholder Bill O’Dea – in whose district Gloria Robinson is located – said this is a model for a number of areas in the city, but noted that the money allocated for needy or what are called Abbott Districts does not fully cover the costs associated with new and modernly equipped facilities.
He said currently a number of sites make use of storefronts, which O’Dea said Gov. Christopher Christie maligned as “babysitting centers.” But, O’Dea noted, the state also fails to provide enough funding to cover the cost of more adequate facilities.
He said the city and school board have to come up with a way of providing adequate facilities in all six wards.
“This is not about the haves and have nots; this is about every child deserving the best early childhood education possible,” O’Dea said.
The city, however, said it is willing to lease four classrooms, the kitchen, and necessary administrative space to the school district at a fair rent for the 2014-15 school year, provided that the city does not find another suitable educational tenant to use the building.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.