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EDITORIAL: New Brunswick Board of Education is using coronavirus disease as shield

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has strangled the news cycle, monopolizing headlines from The Daily Targum to The New York Times and leaving little room for much else.

So when would there be a better time for the government — or any other decision-making institution — to enact controversial legislation or policy?

A big New Brunswick story prior to the novel coronavirus’ bombardment of the news cycle was Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital’s (RWJUH) aim to purchase the Lincoln Annex School and build a new cancer institute in its place.

The plan was so controversial, in fact, that it led to protests breaking out on campus, according to The Daily Targum.

“Members of the Coalition to Defend the Lincoln Annex School held a march yesterday to speak out against the potential sale of the school to build the RWJUH Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. The march led to the Rutgers University Board of Governors meeting, where members of the coalition asked the University to reconsider the sale,” the Targum reported on Feb. 19.

Naturally, with coronavirus shutting down essentially the entire nation, you would expect the New Brunswick Board of Education to scrap important matters and delay them until they can be fully focused on.

Nope. The New Brunswick Board of Education held a remote meeting where, among other things, it passed a resolution to approve the submission of a long-term plan to include the replacement of Lincoln Annex. That is some pretty wordy, bureaucratic nonsense, but it basically means that it is going forward with selling the school. 

There is major hypocrisy on behalf of the Board here. The coronavirus situation was not attention-sapping enough for it to outright postpone the Lincoln Annex matter until a future date. But, when asked to release pertinent documents to the public via the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), the Board stated that it was impeded from doing so by coronavirus.

The novel coronavirus is apparently too imposing to fulfill free speech requests, but not imposing enough to scrap other matters that require intensive focus. Some community activists have already begun speaking out against this dual standard that the Board has set.

“Charlie Kratovil, editor of New Brunswick Today, asked the Board to hold off on voting on the resolution due to the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak that is preventing the Board from holding regular in-person meetings, which he said prevents people from participating,” the Targum reported.

Kratovil is right. Many of those impacted by the potential Lincoln Annex School purchase would be lower income families, who often do not have easy or fast access to the internet. By making this decision in a remote meeting, the Board essentially shut down the voice of those who would be impacted by this the most.

The Board, knowing full well what it was doing, did not postpone the vote. 

“The Board declined to postpone the vote and (Board of Education Business Administrator Richard) Jannarone said having to handle the COVID-19 crisis is preventing them from fulfilling Kratovil’s OPRA requests in a timely manner,” according to the article.

What we have here is a Board of Education that is exploiting a pandemic to make a critical, damaging decision, cowardly hiding behind the pain, suffering and economic hardship endured by broader society. 

They must know what they are doing to the Lincoln Annex School is wrong. Todd Wolfson, a professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies and president of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) said the union opposes the project because the proposed sites of the replacement school are outside of the students' neighborhood, according to the Targum. He said this plan is an example of the city of New Brunswick attempting to push immigrant communities out. 

“Parents don’t want to move and they don’t want their children to move in the first place, and we stand with them on that. But if they must move, they will not and shall not move — and we will fight it — until a new school is built,” Wolfson said, according to the Targum. “A school in the Fifth Ward that has equal amenities and equal capacity that is convenient for students to get to.” 

It is one thing to attempt to go forward with such a shoddy plan in the first place, but doing so with such underhand measures is an act of cowardice in the highest degree. Whether you agree that the potential buyout of the Lincoln Annex School is a harmful act, the actions of the Board must still illicit revulsion. No public servants should use the suffering caused by a pandemic to shoehorn their legislation. 

If this really is such a no-brainer, as the Board has consistently suggested, why is it trying to quietly get it done under its constituents’ noses?

If it is so beneficial to the community at large, the Board of Education must have no problem delaying its decision on this matter until the coronavirus crisis dies down, right? So that is what they must do — or forever be exposed as cowardly public servants who sold out elementary students under the veil of a pandemic.

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The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 152nd editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.