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PERSPECTIVES: Community comes together to preserve Lincoln Annex School

<p>Members of the New Brunswick community formed the Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex School in early February.&nbsp;</p>

Members of the New Brunswick community formed the Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex School in early February. 

This semester saw members of the New Brunswick community and the Rutgers community come together to voice their opposition to the sale of the Lincoln Annex School.

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) was interested in purchasing the school to build an extension of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, The Daily Targum reported. If the school was demolished, approximately 750 children would be housed in a renovated warehouse in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city, commonly referred to as the “Warehouse School.” 

In January, parents and community members started questioning the New Brunswick Board of Education, the Targum reported. Charlie Kratovil, editor of New Brunswick Today, said the Board of Education attempted to prevent parents from raising concerns by changing the rules of its meetings and limiting the number of speakers. 

Around this time, organizations in the Rutgers community became aware of the University’s involvement with the plans to sell the school, the Targum reported. The Rutgers University Student Assembly passed a resolution condemning the sale of the school without a replacement school built beforehand, which was co-sponsored by Rutgers National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Residence Hall Association and RU Progressive. 

Also joining the cause in January was the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers, the Targum reported. 

New Brunswick Mayor James M. Cahill announced plans to build a replacement school on Jersey Avenue for the Lincoln Annex students, the Targum reported in early February. The school would take approximately three years to build, with students at the Warehouse School in the interim. 

Despite the promise of upgraded amenities, Kratovil said Cahill’s proposition still posed a number of issues. The proposed site of the new school was in an industrial area with contamination issues outside of the community where Lincoln Annex students live, the Targum reported. 

The day after Cahill’s proposal, members of the New Brunswick community gathered outside City Hall to announce the formation of the Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex School, the Targum reported. Seven community activism groups from around New Jersey and 14 additional Rutgers student organizations joined the coalition. The group attended the City Council meeting to voice its concerns with its plans, including the potential contamination issues at the Jersey Avenue site. 

The Targum spoke with parents of Lincoln Annex students to learn more about their opposition to the city’s plans. Maria Juares, the mother of a sixth-grade student at Lincoln Annex School, said New Brunswick officials lacked transparency. She said she had been asking the Board of Education and Superintendent Aubrey Johnson about the plans to sell the school since November 2019 and was repeatedly told the plans were simply “rumors” until February, the Targum reported. 

The Lincoln Annex situation also raised concerns about the impacts of gentrification on New Brunswick’s immigrant community. Caritina Hernandez, the mother of a fifth-grade student, said city officials think they can make decisions without opposition because they assume community members are undocumented, the Targum reported. 

The Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex School raised these issues on Feb. 18 at the Rutgers Board of Governors meeting, which was preceded by a march through New Brunswick, the Targum reported. March attendees included New Brunswick citizens as well as Rutgers students and faculty. 

Attendees spoke about the inaccessible location of the replacement school, Lincoln Annex’s current academic success, the poor conditions at the Warehouse School, the contamination issues at the potential 131 Jersey Ave. replacement school and the treatment of New Brunswick’s immigrants, the Targum reported. 

The Board of Governors did not respond to any of the speakers, but the University issued a statement after the meeting, the Targum reported. The University said it is not the project developer but “supports an outcome that will address the educational needs of families” and also “provides the community with high-quality clinical care.”

The New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) officially unveiled its plan for the Cancer Institute at the Board of Education meeting on Feb. 25, the Targum reported. 

After the public comment portion of the meeting, the Board adjourned for a closed session, prompting many community members to leave, and then held a vote to prepare a change to its Long-Range Facilities Plan, the Targum reported. Kratovil said this vote was not listed on the meeting’s agenda, which he believed was a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. 

The Coalition attended the New Brunswick Planning Board meeting on March 9 and revealed new information about the proposed replacement school site at 131 Jersey Ave. An Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request revealed the soil and groundwater of the site contains a large number of various carcinogens, the Targum reported. The documents also revealed New Brunswick officials tried to decontaminate the site for approximately 10 years but remained unsuccessful. 

Community Development Administrator for New Brunswick Daniel Dominguez provided details on the plans for building the Cancer Institute but did not have any details on plans for a replacement school, the Targum reported. 

Soon after the Planning Board meeting, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic caused New Brunswick city officials to meet remotely. At the virtual Board of Education meeting on March 24, the Board approved the submission of a new Long-Range Facilities Plan to include the replacement of the Lincoln Annex School, the Targum reported. Board of Education Business Administrator Richard Jannarone also announced a second potential site for a replacement school at 50 Jersey Ave. was also being considered. 

Kratovil asked the Board of Education to consider delaying votes regarding the Lincoln Annex School until after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Targum reported. He said the remote meetings make it more difficult for community members to participate, but the Board declined to do so.

Juan González, professor of Professional Practice in Journalism and Media Studies, asked the Board why it had not fulfilled his OPRA request for the names of the members of the Long-Range Facilities Plan Committee, which he filed on March 10, the Targum reported. Jannarone said the Board could not fulfill the OPRA requests due to COVID-19.

At a remote New Brunswick City Council meeting on April 2, officials passed an ordinance to adopt a healthcare and research pavilion redevelopment plan, the Targum reported. 

Kratovil questioned how committed RWJUH is to building the Institute considering how busy it must be during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also said the Planning Board’s proposal on March 9, which was solely related to the Institute, disregarded a two-part City Council ordinance from February, which required the Institute’s plans to be submitted at the same time as the replacement school, the Targum reported. 

Elizabeth Ciccone, a resident, said the proposed new site at 50 Jersey Ave. is actually owned by a RWJUH board member, which she said represents a conflict of interest. 

At the Board of Education meeting on April 28, officials passed four resolutions to prepare for the sale of the school, including plans to get an appraisal for the site of the school as well as the preparation and submission of documents to the Department of Education regarding the disposition of the school site, the acquisition of a new site at 50 Jersey Ave. and the schematic design plan for the new site, the Targum reported. 

Board of Education member Edward Spencer said the new school will house approximately 350 additional students and have improved features, the Targum reported. Members of the community still called into the meeting to voice concerns. 

The Targum reported Board of Education Vice President Dale Caldwell also came under fire from community members at the meeting after he accused critics of the plan of being outsiders who do not know anything about the school district. 

It was also revealed at the meeting that González’s March 10 OPRA request still has not been fulfilled. Kratovil said the Board should not be using the pandemic as an excuse for withholding information from the public.

Julienne LaChance, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, reviewed the plans for the 50 Jersey Ave. site. The Board said the conditions at the site are similar to the current school, but LaChance said the chemicals present at this site along with its brownfield designation signal that it is an unsafe location for children. 

Henry Rutgers Term Chair and Assistant Professor in Latino and Caribbean Studies and History Lilia Fernández said the COVID-19 pandemic is already having adverse effects on the New Brunswick community and said displacing the students is bound to cause further hardship. 

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