Parents, teachers and students pleaded with the Jersey City Board of Education yesterday evening to not close the A. Harry Moore program for the multiply disabled, with the governing body voting on measures to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The school has been closed since September 5 after a partial roof collapse, and upon inspection, will be closed until further notice. JCBOE President Sudhan Thomas tried to assuage the crowd by providing some context of the district and school’s recent history.
He started off by explaining that the Jersey School District had been under the state’s supervision for the past 30 years. In 2005, the state came up with a long-range facilities plan that included spending up to $1.3 billion to replace six school buildings that included A. Harry Moore.
Ultimately, the state invested only $300 million and no monies were directed towards A.Harry Moore. That’s why in July the school district sued the state of New Jersey for the $1 billion that was originally identified to bring the district’s school infrastructure up to a state of good repair.
Thomas hinted that soon after he and the board initiated a lawsuit against the state and the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, which is responsible for fully funding and modernizing and renovating school facilities in 31 school districts, his own personal and legal problems started, a reference to his tenure as the acting executive director of the Jersey City Employment and Training Program that has him stuck in pending litigation.
“It’s important for folks to get the perspective that this board did not have control over the school district until last year in October. The agency that was responsible was the state of New Jersey and that’s why we are suing the state. That is something for folks to understand. On a lighter note, some of the personal challenges I’ve been facing in life started soon after we sued the state,” said Thomas.
Thomas then introduced five resolutions to ensure that there is a predictable path forward for the program to educate students with multiple disabilities, which is administered by New Jersey City University.
Earlier this year, NJCU declared that they would not be interested in continuing with the program past July 2020. However, an outcry and a backlash from elected officials and the community compelled the university to reverse that decision.
Nevertheless, the school’s president, Sue Henderson, has expressed publicly that she is concerned about the certainty over the school’s long-term facility plan.
That’s why Thomas was eager for the board to vote on all five of the resolutions that he introduced last night; the board obliged for the first three resolutions before some board members, such as LeKendrick Shaw, pushed back by saying the board didn’t have proper time to consider everything in front of them.
Still, Thomas insisted that it was necessary for the board to take up all five resolutions to ensure that an action plan is in place to identify quickly a new home for the A. Harry Moore program to continue, or else NJCU could simply walk away from administering the program.
The program’s students are currently using a state-owned facility at the Gerard J. Dynes Regional Day School at 425 Johnston Avenue.
The first resolution introduced calls for the creation of an Jersey City Board of Education ad-hoc committee that will include JCBOE members, NJCU members, as well as parents and staff represented by multiple unions including the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The committee will meet once per month to help in the planning, policy and oversight of the program.
The second resolution, as defined in Thomas’s President’s Report for yesterday’s special meeting, calls for the approval of expenses needed for the expansion of the facilities at the state-owned Regional Day so that the program has access to full floor space.
This is necessary in order to accommodate the variety of therapies and programs including physical therapy, occupational therapy and physical education.
The third resolution directly addresses the program’s future home. Thomas explained that the now-closed school building has a lot of infrastructure issues, such as reinforcing steel rebar which supports concrete slabs are all corroding.
One option is to fix the currently closed A. Harry Moore school building that may have a price tag of $20 to $25 million.
“I don’t expect to fund any of this from our operating budget. We can’t use any monies from the operating budget for capital expenses. Instead, we are asking our representatives, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, Senator Sandra Cunningham and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji to work with the Governor to secure the funding,” said Thomas.
During this discussion about funding repairs, Trustee Joan Terrell-Paige asked a representative from NJCU, Roger Harris, the director of the Institute For Collaborative Education, about whether NJCU would be able to contribute given that the university has been undergoing a recent building boom.
Harris maintained that it is the BOE’s responsibility to maintain school facilities and infrastructure. He proposed that, in working with conjunction with the BOE, they both try to identify a private/public partnership in the city to offset the repair costs.
“The root of it seems to be a lack of funds … you are saying New Jersey City University should come up with the money, and we’re saying that our job is the program, it’s the BOE’s responsibility to handle the facility, that’s only two issues. There’s an entity that nobody is even considering, the business sector,” said Harris.
“Why isn’t anyone talking about the private and public sector projects. What businessman down there on the waterfront with all these big high rises going up, what big corporation would not be willing to support a school like this? We should be talking about collaboration.”
Paige responded that it is the state’s mandate to provide a thorough and efficient education to every child in the state.
“That’s program, that’s not facility,” Harris answered.
The other option is to retrofit other school buildings in the district such as PS-3, PS-9 MS-40 or any other available facility belonging to the Jersey City BOE.
Before voting on the resolution, Thomas stressed to the board that the best way forward at the moment to ensure that NJCU doesn’t walk away from the program is by augmenting and expanding floor space at Regional Day.
The fourth resolution calls for the district administration to issue a Letter of Intent (LOI) to NJCU for a five-year renewal of the JCBOE/NJCU contract from July, 2020 to June, 2025, “allowing the parties to mutually agree on an exit at the end of three years with a one-year or two-year transition as deemed fit with the goal of finalizing the agreement or LOI acceptance by December 15, 2019 to prevent the issuance of lay-off notices to NJCU/A. Harry Moore staff before the holidays.”
The board members present all voted yes on these resolutions: Thomas, Shaw, Paige Board Vice President Lorenzo Richardson, Gina Verdibello, and Marilyn Roman.
The final resolution calls for identifying “program gaps if any and/or needs including summer school, after school programs and other programs to better service the program.” But it did not come up for a vote, although Sudhan said he gave guidance to the soon-to-be created ad-hoc committee to take it up as an action item, and therefore it’s on record.
“We believe that the above action items will best service the AHM children and at the same time give the necessary time and resources to NJCU/JCBOE to support the most vulnerable of our children,” said Thomas.
We streamed a portion of the special meeting to our Facebook Page, which can be viewed below: