As early as September, freshmen and sophomores at West New York’s Memorial High School will attend classes in the Palisade Avenue school building across the street which, until 2009, was home to St. Joseph of the Palisades High School.
The New Jersey School Development Agency (NJSDA), which funds school facility projects in 31 school districts statewide, purchased the building for $12 million at the end of December and passed the title on to the town’s school district.
The acquisition of St. Joe’s, as it was known colloquially, will solve Memorial’s long standing problem of overcrowding, said Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Fauta.
“When it was built, [Memorial] was meant to hold 900 students, and now we have about 1,800,” he said. “It’s a much-needed space, and we as a district would not have been able to afford it.”
The goal is to open it for the start of next year’s first marking period. Improvements to the building are currently underway. According to Fauta, if the building is not ready by September, it will open in January 2014.
“Once we saw that St. Joe’s had closed in 2009, we realized that was a viable opportunity for Memorial.” – NJSDA Communications Director Kristen MacLean
“We’re thinking of it as sort of a campus,” said Fauta. “The street will probably be closed off.”
Along with the building, Memorial will acquire St. Joe’s auditorium, gymnasium, swimming pool and cafeteria.
“It’s a win-win situation for the district and the community,” Fauta said. “The high school gets to keep its swimming team, and the town might get to use the pool.”
Paul Sangillo, the lawyer who negotiated the deal between the district and St. Joseph’s parish, which owned the building, said the building would do great things for West New York.
“After the renovations are complete, this building will house some very important functions of Memorial High School,” said Sangillo. “This deal was a big win for all entities involved and most importantly for the students in the district.”
The building’s refurbishing will be paid for by the town, though the cost is significantly less than what it might have taken to build a new building. NJSDA Communications Director Kristen MacLean said in a phone interview that the other proposal that had been explored, the construction of an addition onto the building would have cost about $40 million more.
“Once we saw that St. Joe’s had closed in 2009, we realized that was a viable opportunity for Memorial,” said MacLean.
The acquisition of St. Joe’s is the fifth major action taken by the NJSDA in West New York. Previously, it funded the renovation of Number 2 Elementary School and construction of Number 3 Elementary and Number 4 Elementary. Since the inception of the agency’s school construction program in 2000, it has invested nearly $186 million in the district.
State legislation created the NJSDA in 2007, although it is rooted in the 1998 New Jersey Supreme Court case Abbott vs. Burke, which mandated that the state was obligated to fund all school construction and renovation projects in special needs school districts. The agency is the successor to the subsidiary School Construction Corporation, which was granted $8.6 billion in 2000 to overhaul school infrastructure in 31 districts statewide.
In 2009, the state legislature granted the district an additional $3.9 billion in funding, but still, money has been tight.
“We have a very finite pot of money at our disposal. Since the new administration, we’ve been looking at how we can maximize efficiency and meeting as many needs as we can,” said MacLean. “We’re looking to stretch our dollars further.”
It was this type of thinking that led to the purchase of St. Joe’s for West New York. Given a recent trend in Catholic schools closing, the NJSDA included the strategy of purchasing unused school buildings in its 2011 capital improvement plan.
“We believe that if we can do that, when appropriate, there’s a potential to save millions of dollars that we could then delegate to additional projects that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do,” MacLean said.
School security and recent fire
As if the news that half of Memorial’s students will be moving across the street next year is not enough, the district has been dealing with recent public safety issues.
Since the Newtown, Conn. massacre, school security has been under review in districts around the county. Fauta said the district’s security is closely monitored by the New Jersey Department of Education’s Make Our Schools Safe (MOSS) guidelines. He said the district coincidentally held state-mandated drills at some schools 10 days before the Connecticut shootings. Fauta said he was later informed that West New York’s performance will be used as a model for other districts.
Police officers have been stationed in West New York schools for 11 years. There is at least one officer stationed in each school, along with two each at West New York Middle School and Memorial High School.
Meanwhile, Memorial students dealt admirably with a drill of another type when a dust collector in the school’s wood shop caught fire Wednesday morning, said Fauta.
There was no damage and no one was hurt, but students were evacuated while firefighters from North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue dealt with the problem, which Fauta described as “more of a smoke fire.”
“Our students reacted tremendously to the evacuation,” he said. “They were in and out in 30 minutes.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at email@example.com