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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The city’s school district is once again preparing to use a warehouse on Van Dyke Avenue as a temporary school facility, while a new school is being built at the former St. Peter’s campus on Somerset Street.
District officials shy away from using the word “warehouse,” and instead referred to the industrial building as “the swing space” or “building 40” during the July 21 Board of Education meeting.
The warehouse building is owned by a politically-connected real estate developer and has served exclusively as a school, and has been leased by the state’s Schools Development Authority.
Located at 40 Van Dyke Avenue, it is owned by a subsidiary of Woodbridge-based Wick Enterprises, which is owned by developer Robert Paulus.
Paulus has been closely connected to the school development business in the past. Shell companies tied to Paulus, including Euro LLC, have previously profited off of the land acquisition that faciliated the construction of the Lord Sitrling Community School.
“We’re going to be looking at… some uses for ‘building 40’ and some newer uses for the St. Peter’s site,” said Board of Education President Patricia Sadowski during her report at the July 21 meeting.
“There will be students there, but not until it’s completed in January,” said Sadowski. “We’re not going to put students into a building that’s not finished, and there’s still some things that need to be finished.”
“We want it to be right, and that means January and not September, unfortunately,” Sadowski said. Her seat on the Board of Education is up for re-election in April 2016.
School board member Ed Spencer said the district’s new Superintendent Aubrey Johnson will soon be meeting with Charles McKenna, the CEO of the School Development Authority (SDA) “to discuss [the district’s] plans to use ‘building 40’ as a school in September.”
Officials say they are still pursuing plans for a new elementary school in the city’s Fifth Ward on the former site of the St. Peter’s Catholic schools, but that it won’t be ready in time to avoid having to use the warehouse school.
The former Catholic school campus was purchased by the school board for $7.4 million in 2013, according to public records. The Fifth Ward is the only neighborhood in New Brunswick without a public elementary school.
At first, officials said they were going to turn the former Catholic schools on Somerset Street into a new headquarters for the district’s top-level administrators.
But community members, including the author of this article, questioned the logic of the move given that the buildings were already configured to be schools, and the nearest elementary school was aging and overwhelmed.
Over the objections of residents, the board proceeded with construction on their new headquarters, only to change their mind a few months ago, citing the growing immigrant population.
The facility that is now planned would combine a former elementary school and high school into one continguous building that would include 34 classrooms, and have a capacity of 795 students.
That number is slightly more than currently attend the city’s oldest and most overcrowded facilty: Lincoln Elementary School.
The district’s new Superintendent went out of his way to make a statement saying he was “presently re-evaluating” the moves the district would be making regarding facilities.
“There were some plans on the table but we have now decided to re-evaluate those plans and have some feedback from the community,” said Johnson, who took over as the district’s Superintendent on July 1.
“Right now we are looking at for the swing space to move some classes in the beginning of the year, and then to eventually move them, hopefully to St. Peter’s,” Johnson said.
“Part of the challenge for Mr. Johnson… is always trying to get ahead of the growth of our student population,” said outgoing Superintendent Richard Kaplan, as he described the change of heart about what to do at the St. Peter’s site at the June BOE meeting.
Spencer, the Board’s Facilities Committee Chair, said the state’s Department of Education has approved a request from the district to use the former Catholic schools “as a public school rather than a board office.”
“We are aggressively pushing to have the original construction completed by September 1,” said Spencer, adding that the district says additional work needed to “facilitate the buildings to be used as a school” was slated for September through December.
“This would allow the building to be opened as a school when we return from winter recess,” Spencer said during his report at the July 21 meeting.
Some grade levels will likely remain in the Lincoln Elementary School, located on Bartlett Street, while others shift to the so-called “swing space.”
Officials said that the temporary site, which has drawn the ire of critics who say the warehouse building is located in a contaminated industrial area and lacks traditional elements like an outdoor playground, could conceivably be used as a school for several more years.
District officials said that, after one more year at their current location, students at Paul Robeson School will end up in the warehouse while a long-delayed renovation project begins at that school, one that is not expected to finish until 2018.
The warehouse facility at 40 Van Dyke Avenue has been out of service since January, when the Redshaw Elementary School finally re-opened on Livingston Avenue.
Redshaw students were detoured to the warehouse, and one next door, for seven full years after officials promised the swift re-construction of the school on its original site.
After funding ran dry, and a new Governor took over the state, the new school did not open until 2015.
The new Superintendent also said that the district now wants to engage with community members to discuss what is best for the future of the former Catholic school, the alma mater of Mayor James Cahill.
“We’re still re-evaluating and we are looking for some meetings with some community leaders, teachers, and administrators regarding,” Johnson said.
Kaplan said previously that his successor may decide to make Lincoln Elementary School just for kindergarden through second grade, a decision partially motivated by the fact that the school lacks computer technology and those grades are unaffected by the PARCC standardized testing.
Lincoln School received a waiver this past year allowing the school to be one of the few that were allowed to take the PARCC test using paper and pencil.
Kaplan was disappointed that the new facility to replace St. Peter’s won’t be ready in time for the upcoming school year.
“I received a letter from the architect via the construction manager that that won’t be ready,” Kaplan said at the June meeting. “We were hoping for July 31. They’re talking August 31 or as late as September 1. We’re not happy with that. We find that unacceptable.”
“And we expect that there’s going to be further meetings… to get this opened in time,” said Kaplan. “The state doesn’t move too fast, as we know.”
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.