In early April, Hudson County Schools of Technology Superintendent Frank J. Gargiulo said he is seeking support for a new plan to dramatically expand the education services offered by the county's vocational school system.
Gargiulo's plan calls for the development of five new educational academies that would serve over 2,000 high school students from throughout the county.
The academies would feature environmental and other sciences, performing arts, construction trades and the current high tech high school.
About half of the 2,000 students would take part in an alternative education program designed to help students who are not succeeding in traditional education settings for a variety of reasons. The alternative education school would serve grades seven through 12.
Gargiulo has asked the state Department of Education for preliminary approval to design a new campus on vacant county owned land in Secaucus next to the county park. If the state approves his conceptual plan, the superintendent will make a formal presentation to the Hudson County Board of Freeholders as well as the municipal government of Secaucus.
"This is a tremendous opportunity to build a world-class education complex for our children that would help every local school district in Hudson County," Gargiulo said last week. "The availability of state funding for new school construction makes this plan timely and practical."
Elwell said he had no problem with the concept, provided the county constructed the facility on county-owned property rather than attempting to take existing taxable property off the tax roles.
"I do know the county owns a large section of land down there," Elwell said.
The county owns 105 acres in area of Laurel Hill Park, the ownership dating back the 1800s when the county had most of its institutions located there, including a jail, a tuberculosis hospital, a laundry and a mental institution.
Of the 105 acres, 43 are currently being used for the park. The original facilities were demolished in the early 1950s and the stone at the site quarried for use in constructing the New Jersey Turnpike. Over the years, the land stayed dormant, raising concerns of local officials who wanted the land put to productive use.
A series of lawsuits starting in 1983 sought to get the county to use the property or put in back on the tax rolls.
The development of the park was part of the plan to provide a use. Some of the land was also used for a temporary jail. The jail closed last year to make way for an entrance and exit to the New Jersey Turnpike.
Despite some criticism of the plan by Hoboken Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons, who argued at the April 10 freeholder meeting that a technical school should be located at Stevens Institute in Hoboken, Elwell argued that Secaucus had a more central location that would provide easier access to everyone from around the county.
"Since many of the students would be bused to any school location, it only makes sense," Elwell said.
Gargiulo said the academies could be located in various parts of Hudson County, but he picked Secaucus because the county already owned a significant amount of land, reducing the cost of what will still be a costly project. "Waterfront property is very expensive," he said. "As far as housing something at Stevens, I don't see why not."
Schools geared towards careers
"I thought five academies would be a minimum because in my own head, I'm grouping them by vocation," Gargiulo said last week. "Each academy would represent a career."
Each building could house several academies.
The Schools of Technology currently has two major facilities, in North Bergen and Jersey City, and also uses space in Harrison High School. For several years, the county also used sections of Secaucus High School for its automotive, carpentry and culinary programs. Carpentry has recently been moved to the Jersey City campus.
The superintendent's plan calls for transferring approximately 800 high school students from its North Bergen facility to the complex in Secaucus. The North Bergen facility would then become an adult training center.
"Right now our children go to school in a converted industrial building off Tonnelle Avenue with no gymnasium and no theater," Gargiulo said. "The Laurel Hill site is next to ball fields, a new county park and right on the Hackensack River. It would be a dramatic improvement for our children and a shinning accomplishment for Hudson County." He envisioned the school working hand in hand with the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, which offers numerous environmental programs along the Hackensack. Gargiulo said he would like to have the construction trades academy finished first so that students could help construct the new Secaucus facility to accommodate the other academies - although he said the school would have to talk to the unions to determine if there are opportunities available for students to work and learn.
"Our alternative high school will be a career based academy that helps these children become productive citizens by building self-esteem based on success," Gargiulo said. "Some of these kids are very talented by they just can't thrive in a traditional school setting. Meeting the needs of these children is one of the most difficult challenges facing every school system in the country."
The new academies would also help alleviate long waiting lists at the current facilities.
"We have over 4,000 children and adults who want to come to our schools [and] we simply do not have room to serve them," Gargiulo said. "This plan brings these residents the education opportunity they deserve."
The North Bergen campus, he said, gets about 1,200 applications for 120 spots, and the Jersey City gets even greater numbers to fill the 150 spots available there.
Elwell said the waiting list has long been an issue in numerous communities, including Secaucus. "We know that it is difficult to get students placed," he said.
If the state agrees to the plan and the plan passes muster with the Hudson County Freeholders, the project would take about five years to complete.
Secaucus could benefit in several ways
Gargiulo said the current location of the schools of technology is a problem because of its location on Tonnelle Avenue. He said traffic creates a significant concern along the busy roadway. The Secaucus location is very remote.
Secaucus would benefit because additional road improvements would have to be made in order to accommodate buses to and from the school.
For nearly a year, Elwell has been petitioning state and federal officials to provide a remedy to traffic problems in the area. Because of increased train traffic in and out of the Croxton Rail Lines in Jersey City (which borders Secaucus), traffic going into New County Road, leading to the industrial section of town as well as the county park, is often backed up. Pleas to have a rail bridge have been largely ignored until recently.
A county school located in that section of town would provide Secaucus with willing allies in the battle to get a railroad bridge installed.
"If buses are coming from everywhere in the county to get to the school, I think the railroad will listen to us," Elwell said.
Recent conversations with the railroad companies that run Croxton Yards have been more fruitful than in the past - especially after Hudson County Engineer Bob Jasek ordered a traffic study in the area. This study agreed with many of Secaucus' requests.
"But if a bridge is to be installed to that area, it would have to be 24 feet high," Elwell said. "That means someone will have to buy some land for it."