Building NJ Urban Schools Means Finding a Space to Do It

Mon May 19, 2003 - National Edition

GLOUCESTER CITY, NJ (AP) A sign where the school district wants to build a new middle school says “No Trespassing Unstable Ground.”

To build on the sites in the densely populated 2.3-sq.-mi. town south of Camden, 70 families will have to be relocated and the polluted ground will need to be cleaned up.

There’s not much room for new schools in this and other urban districts across the state, and when space is found there are often environmental problems. That’s one reason why constructing $6-billion worth of new schools for underprivileged districts has moved so slowly.

“Where do you find eight acres?” asked Mary Stansky, Gloucester City’s schools superintendent. That’s how much land it would take to put up a modern middle school with all the trimmings, including parking lots and athletic fields.

New Jersey was ordered to pay for the new schools after the state Supreme Court ruled in 1998 in a case known as Abbott v. Burke that the neediest communities should get special assistance because they could not support an adequate school system.

Two years later, the Legislature adopted a plan to fund the improvements to the poor schools and at the same time fund $2.6-billion worth of school expansions in other districts.

In the 30 Abbott districts, the state is spending $6 billion to build, renovate and expand schools. Emergency repairs should be completed by the end of this year, but the building is just beginning.

So far, the only new construction that has been completed in one of the poor districts is an early childhood education wing of a Burlington City elementary school.

Three more new or expanded schools are scheduled to open this year with approximately 100 more to follow in the next two years.

School officials in several Abbott districts blame the state bureaucracy for keeping construction progress slow while non-Abbott districts are quickly spending the $2.6 billion provided to them.

But some poor districts say that regardless of the red tape, they would have many of the same problems.

“The difficulty in finding sites would have been a problem no matter who was responsible for doing construction,” said Tom Dunn Jr., Elizabeth’s schools superintendent.

Elizabeth, city of 120,000 known for its heritage of heavy industry and being bisected by the New Jersey Turnpike, is trying to find space to build 22 new schools.

“We’re going to keep looking,” he said. “But it’s a difficult task. The first 10 or 12 were the most obvious.”

Most of the Abbott districts are in towns that boomed and went bust along with their manufacturing industries, so there is no such thing as pristine land.

Alfred T. McNeill, the executive director of the state School Construction Corp., said he expects that around $1 billion of the $6-billion cost of Abbott school construction will be used to relocate residents, buy sites and do environmental cleanup.

The corporation has ruled out some sites proposed by school districts because the cost to rid them of environmental hazards would be too high.

“I don’t want to be the Superfund,” McNeill said, referring to the federal program designed to clean up hazardous sites.

McNeill wrote a letter to all Abbott districts in March warning them that his agency would not fund the cleanup of just any site.

“There is no doubt that a certain amount of environmental remediation will be required on most of the urban school sites in New Jersey,” he wrote. “However, selecting the environmentally worst sites in your community for school locations would often place schools in unacceptable neighborhoods for children’s education.”

The Gloucester City site has the distinction of requiring residents to be moved and heavy environmental remediation. A study of whether it’s feasible to build there is expected around the end of May.

Residents have already been warned that the state plans to buy the land. Stansky hopes to have the new building open in 2007.

Thomas and Arlene Allen knew when they moved into a house they rent in Gloucester City that their stay could be short. The Powell Street row home came with a month-to-month lease because it’s on the site where the school board would like to put the new middle school.

Thomas Allen said he doesn’t mind having to leave — or that the cost of cleaning up the places where a rug factory, popcorn factory and gas works once stood to make way for the school property could be steep.

“It’s going to be very expensive, but on the other hand, you need to have a school,” said Allen, a construction worker.

“It kind of worked out for us,” Arlene Allen said. “A lot of the people that live here, they don’t want to give up their house.”

In locations where contamination isn’t a big problem, competition usually is.

Asbury Park is in line to get funds from the state for just one new elementary school. Superintendent Antonio Lewis would like it to go in the eastern part of town where there are no schools.

“The sites that we have identified have been earmarked for redevelopment,” Lewis said. And unlike commercial enterprises that could take up prize real estate, schools don’t pay taxes.

School officials and some groups who are trying to revitalize the state’s struggling cities, though, see new schools as a way to attract new residents to neighborhoods. Doing so, they say, could jump-start other economic development efforts the same way a business can.

“If you wanted to bring a new industry in, the state would scramble to get it cleaned up,” said Joyce Harley, executive director of the New Jersey Multicity Local Initiatives Support Corp.

Some projects are being planned with that in mind.

Dunn said Elizabeth is looking into turning the old Elizabeth General Hospital property into a mixed-use development that would include a high school, housing and offices.

And in the south ward of Trenton the school district is planning to reuse part of the old Roebling steel facility to make four buildings into a pre-kindergarten, an elementary school, a middle school and a maintenance building.

The schools are a way to save some historic structures. But superintendent James Lytle says there’s a pragmatic reason for using the old buildings.

“It’s an area where there are no available spaces,” he said.