Jersey City Public Schools Pre-K Classroom Shortage Concerns

The Jersey City Public Schools (JCPS) will receive approximately $492 million of its budget (74%) from NJ state aid for the 2014-15 school year. The state intends this aid to be directed inside the classroom — to fund books, pencils, teachers’ salaries, and so on. Because of a shortage of classroom space throughout the city, the Board of Education (BOE) currently directs some of this funding towards leases. Over the next five years, the district will grow by over 3,000 students. And because of the classroom shortage, Mayor Steven Fulop announced his intentions to build space for Pre-K classrooms throughout the City.

But is the Mayor’s approach to the classroom shortage the right approach?

Jersey City’s Aging Classrooms

The BOE is restricted in its ability to procure classroom space. Leasing, building, or improving classrooms in the Jersey City Public Schools is the purview of the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA), a state-level agency that serves NJ’s 31 most at-need districts, including Jersey City. However, per a December 2013 NJ Department of Education (DOE) report, the SDA is falling short of its obligations. One of the district’s biggest problems is that its school buildings are so old; JCPS is one of five districts throughout the state with the most square footage of classroom space older than 90 years (refer to section A.4 of the Needs Assessment Report). Add the increase in enrollment in grades Pre-K through 8 to compound the problem.

Currently, this issue is being addressed by using trailers if space near the school allows, or by busing children to schools that have space. Neither option is popular with parents because trailers are inherently temporary and subject to issues such as pipes freezing, and busing children as young as three and four years old is unsettling to many parents. Busing also comes with a $1,100 per-student, per-year price tag to the district.

Gina Verdibello, a parent zoned for PS 38 near West Side Avenue has three children enrolled in the public schools. On the trailers, Verdibello offers, “There are four Pre-K trailers and one kindergarten trailer at PS38. (The kids) are moved to the library when the pipes are frozen. I would favor using and improving what we have and possibly expand within our own facilities versus building new sites. Another concern I have, aside from the trailers, is the library. It’s completely outdated with no scanning device to track books. We have over 900 students in our building and our library should be state of art and it’s not.”

Sarah Welt, a parent zoned for PS 5 in the downtown Village neighborhood, has a three year old who qualifies for Pre-K in September. She spoke to the busing situation, stating “I’m fortunate that I’m a stay-at-home mom. My husband and I have already agreed that we will not bus our three year old and that I will drive him back and forth if necessary to whatever school he may be assigned. But parents do not have that option if both parents work or don’t have a car. And a lot of families, despite the perception of downtown being affluent, can’t afford expensive private Pre-K. Their option is to put their three year old on a bus or not send them to preschool at all.”

Amy Ertel, a parent zoned for PS 37 in Hamilton Park, shared concerns about three and four year old children spending too much time on a bus, particularly with the upcoming closure of the Pulaski Skyway. “I think it’s going to be a nightmare because currently when they bus to PS 22 it takes 20 minutes and that will likely be double or more the time once the Pulaski Skyway closes.  Trying to move kids to Bergen Lafayette and, if necessary, to the west side, might take up to an hour.”

The need for additional Pre-K space is something that the NJ DOE, the BOE, the Mayor, and parents all seem to agree on. The concern is how best to address that need.

The Opposing Points of View by the BOE and the Mayor

When asked about the issues highlighted in the SDA report and the most effective way to address the problem, BOE President Sangeeta Ranade stated, “One of the quickest ways to fix these schools would be to create a Buildings Improvement Fund. Developers could contribute to this fund and the city could disburse it to upgrade existing schools. An abatement policy that encourages this contribution would affect far more students than the current policy.”

(Developers would contribute if they could extend the abatement term from, for example, 10 years to 20 years.  Currently the city’s abatement policy (the one adopted by executive order on 12/24/2013) enables a developer to “buy up” from 10 years to 20 years (as an example) if they agree to certain terms, one option being to build a Pre-K facility.)

However, in his state of the city address, Mayor Fulop indicated that purchasing new space is the preferred option. He specifically spoke to three properties in his speech. “There are two new Pre-K facilities presently under planning and one existing facility…that (are) being proposed for the Board of Education.”

The facilities that the Mayor is referring to are:

Community Center on 180 9th Street (aka “The PS 37 Annex”). This downtown (Ward E) property is already built and owned by the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency (JCRA). From the late 1990s through 2011, the community center’s primary tenant was the Golden Door Charter School until they moved out in 2011. In spring of 2013, Jersey City reached an agreement with the school district for the 2013-14 year; for $1, the district leased four Pre-K classrooms accommodating 60 children.

The Pennrose Project (aka “The Gloria Robinson Court Homes,” formerly “The Duncan Projects”). This west side (Ward B) Pre-K facility is not yet built. It is a joint venture between the Jersey City Housing Authority (JCHA) and a private developer, AHM Housing Associates IV, LLC, which is owned by Pennrose GP, LLC, a private developer incorporated in Kingston, PA. A 30-year tax abatement for this property was applied for at the May 29, 2013 City Council meeting. The nearby school, PS 39, is currently under-enrolled. Thus, BOE sources have said if this facility is used, it most likely will result in students being bussed to the location (which, as mentioned above, comes at a cost to the district.)

9th & Brunswick, aka Ninth Street Urban Renewal LLC. This facility is not yet built but the developer is seeking a 20-year abatement per the March 14, 2014 City Council agenda.

Mayor Fulop elaborated on his vision for the development of new Pre-K facilities at the March 10th Downtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations (DCNA) meeting. He said that universal Pre-K, which is a result of the Abbott vs. Burke lawsuit, was intended for the poorest members of the city. Of the downtown population, he said, “Truthfully, [the Abbott ruling] was never slated…to be towards people down here.” He also commented that, “When you look at the different demographics for the city, by and large there is a different demographic in different parts of the city.”

The 2012-13 NJ School Performance Reports provide demographic information for each school, including “economically disadvantaged” students, or those eligible for free or reduced price lunch.  At PS 37 in downtown Hamilton Park, 49.9% of the student body is considered “economically disadvantaged” (refer to p. 2 of the PS 37 School Performance report).  At PS 39, the school nearest to the Pennrose project, 87.7% of the student body is considered “economically disadvantaged (refer to p. 2 of the PS 39 School Performance report). These statistics substantiate the Mayor’s claim that there are different demographics in different parts of the City, but they also point to an existing need in the downtown neighborhood.

 Negotiation Problems

In the state of the city speech, the mayor called upon the public to “challenge” the school district to support the creation of the new school facilities, suggesting that the BOE was acting in an obstructionist or counterproductive manner.

According to sources at the BOE, the following concerns were raised about the new classroom negotiations with City Hall:

  • They do not have clear contractual terms for any of the projects despite their requests. The Mayor confirmed that all terms presented from the City to the BOE have been verbal.
  • When the BOE reviewed the PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes – also known as tax abatements) application’s terms against the offer terms in a presentation provided by Pennrose, there appeared to be a $2 million resulting profit. The BOE is still waiting for clarification from the City or Pennrose. When asked about this apparent profit, Mayor Fulop said referring to Pennrose as a private developer was “disingenuous” because Pennrose was not profiting from the Pre-K facility. (When I countered this claim, citing the documented numbers that substantiate the BOE’s claims of profit to Pennrose, the mayor referred me to city spokesperson Jen Morrill, citing he lacked the details.)
  • The BOE has concerns that the mayor will make this an “all or none” deal, meaning that the PS 37 annex will not be rented to the BOE unless the other two properties are also rented. The mayor confirmed this at the DCNA meeting, stating the BOE should “pay…the fair value. The other wards should not pay for [the PS 37 annex].”
  • If the BOE attempted to build its own classroom space, it would be required to undergo a competitive bid process, per rules around how Board funds are spent. By dealing directly with developers through the JCHA, both competition and transparency could potentially be removed from the process.
  • The BOE questions the involvement of the Mayor, preferring instead to negotiate directly with the Jersey City Housing Authority (JCHA), the JCRA, and Pennrose.

The Latest Offer

On March 5th, the BOE presented the City with two offers, one for the Community Center at 180 9th Street and one for the Pennrose project. According to a member of the BOE, the BOE had to present what they felt was a fair price because space is in such dire need. In each offer, the BOE offered to pay approximately $1,300 per student, or 10%, of the 2014-15 per-pupil budget of $12,842. The BOE did not submit an offer on the property at 9th and Brunswick citing cost prohibitions. At the DCNA meeting, Mayor Fulop characterized the BOE’s offer as “disingenuous.”

As of the writing of this article, the BOE has not yet received a response.  With pre-K registration having started on March 10th, the lack of information about the community center at 180 9th Street is of concern to many parents. Further, parents in school zones currently using trailers or busing will presumably have more of the same to look forward to.

JCI will be following this story as conclusions are reached.

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Brigid D'Souza

is a Jersey City blogger. Her blog, Civic Parent, focuses on civic issues in and around Jersey City.