JERSEY CITY, NJ - After a marathon six-hour meeting that included nearly 100 public speakers, the Jersey City Municipal Council passed a resolution in support of a deal that would create a new county high tech high school.
In a 6-2 vote, the body supported a memorandum of understanding between Jersey City, the Hudson County Schools of Technology, and Liberty Science Center allocating at least $2 million annually towards Liberty Science Center High School – part of the Scitech Scity project, for the next 30 years.
The conflict came after members of the Jersey City Board of Education criticized the deal that invests taxpayer’s money into constructing a county school at a time when the municipal school district is facing serious economic shortfalls.
Those critics, including two members of the city council and a number of members of the Board of Education, claim the city has failed to live up to promises made in 2017 when selling the land to Liberty Science Center for what had been proposed as a Jersey City public school.
Sharply criticized at the time, Jersey City sold 13 acres of land adjacent to the Liberty Science Center in 2017 for $10, when many believed the property was worth significantly more.
Councilman Rolando Lavarro said he supported the sale on the promise that the school would be a Jersey City public school and provide science education to Jersey City elementary students.
He, like many of those who objected to the latest deal, expressed disappointment that the school became a high school, and one that will accommodate students from around Hudson County, while only Jersey City would be paying.
“Why is Jersey City the only municipality funding the county school,” asked Jackie Shannon. “Jersey City already has a science high school at McNair. If this is a county school, then it should be paid for by the county.”
Many residents, including public school students, who spoke at the public hearing on March 24 claimed the money would be better spent by helping the troubled public school district. Some highlighted the lack of resources such as textbooks, toilet paper, and drinking water, as well as large class sizes due to reduction in workforce.
BOE President Mussab Ali said the city has failed the school districts in a number of areas, including refusing to allow the city to engage a buy-back lease for the Central Office building that would have provided revenue to the district.
“He (Fulop) would not give us any tax abatement dollars,” Ali said. “If you care about our kids, table this resolution and commit to funding Jersey City public schools.”
Trustees Lorenzo Richardson and Gina Verdibello also came out against the agreement, while former trustees Sangeeta Ranade and Vida Gangadin supported the county school concept.
At both the council caucus and later at the city council meeting, Mayor Steven Fulop pushed back against what he called “misinformation” concerning the project.
Fulop said the 2017 land deal was to accommodate a much larger project that would include a variety of business and educational facilities, of which the school was only one part, adding that his Administration talked to the school district about building the school and found that the district did not have the resources to accomplish it, and so reached out to the county and others to help make the school a reality.
“That site was originally proposed for residential,” Fulop said. “We thought we could do better. This is a huge success for Jersey City.”
Although the school will be open to students from throughout the county, most of the students would come from Jersey City as they do at two other county run high schools, he said of the new plan which is modeled after a successful agreement with the county Explore 2000 middle school where 66 percent of the students are from Jersey City.
While the agreement has the city giving $2 million annually to the project, the county will be covering $7 million annually to actually run the school – from taxes raised throughout the other municipalities.
“This means all the other municipalities will be paying for the school operations,” he said.
Fulop also knocked back charges that his Administration is failing to help the school district, saying that they offered aid along with recommended changes to how the district operated, changes the school administration refused to go along with.
“What I’m not willing to do is write a blank check on the school funding conversation,” Fulop said.
But, he said, the city has helped the district in a number of ways already and will continue to do so.
Developing an additional county school is an investment in the future, Fulop continued, and one that will provide 250 more kids an opportunity that doesn’t exist now. “Our job is to provide opportunity,” he said. “This is not at the expense of public schools.”
The city is already building a new public school and has provided other means to help reduce school overhead such as through shared services. “We will continue to do so,” Fulop said.
Fulop wasn’t alone in his support for the plan, with several parents, including Jackie Cox, who also spoke. “It’s estimated that 65 percent of elementary-age children will work in jobs that don’t exist today,” she said “As parents, we need options for good public schools that will ready our children not for today but for the advanced world of tomorrow.”
Councilman James Solomon, who unsuccessfully tried to delay the vote until the April meeting, said he did not oppose the school, but he was concerned about claims being made by supporters that were not laid out in the agreement. “I need to see these things in writing,” he said.
Offering that current funding and the construction of the school are two separate issues Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey said the city and the school district need to work together to find a solution, while continuing to expand education for city students.
“This program has been a couple of years in the working,” she said. “It’s about how to provide opportunities for families moving forward. Having this school in Jersey City is good for our kids.”
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