Hearing on plan to keep using Braddock Park for North Bergen pre-K sparks heated debate

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A plan to continue using trailers in James J. Braddock Park for North Bergen pre-K classes sparked a heated debate during a Zoom call last night.

Braddock Park classes

By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View

Pre-school classes have been held in trailers in Braddock Park since 2001.

A roughly $60 million school ballot referendum was approved in 2018 to fund construction, purchase the old High Tech High School building, and remove the trailers from the park, though the latter aspect of the plan never came to fruition.

The Zoom call was convened after the township and county reached out to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to express their intentions to keep the pre-K program as is.

Many early speakers indicated that they didn’t have a problem with the current location.

“It’s been there 20 years with no problem,” said John Bender, a board of education employee.

“I’m 100 percent for keeping the trailers. I was a student in them. The fact that I can remember being a student there means a lot. The playground was right there. There was a cop on campus, so it seemed super safe. Any other location won’t have the same accessibility [outdoors],” Lauren Cabrera said.

“We are a terribly underfunded school district. To purchase land would be a hardship,” state Senator (D-32)/North Bergen Mayor Nick Sacco added.

Board of Chosen Freeholders Chair Anthony Vainieri (D-8) was particularly adamant about his stance on maintaining the current location.

“Anyone who opposes this doesn’t have kids,” Vainieri said, adding that the Bruins stadium portion of the park is in North Bergen’s jurisdiction. Therefore, it cannot be converted into a park by the county if the trailers were moved.

“If you don’t like this, you should move out of the town,” he exclaimed.

Not everyone on the call was convinced that the current set of circumstances was optimal though.

Janet Glass said that the area should be preserved as open space, while David Case, a local leader of the Hudson County Sierra Club, said they believe it should have been settled in 2011 for having illegally diverted green space.

“They were told the pre-school would be relocated in 2018 referendum. That DEP would consider this application is unconscionable. How many times will we be repeating the same farce? What’s next? A casino, a racetrack? Where does it stop?” Case asked.

In that vein, Jose Lara said the trailers are deteriorated and not suitable for young students. That sentiment was shared by Maria Hidalgo.

“North Bergen has been squatting in this park for 20 years,” Hidalgo stated. “This would never happen in a white neighborhood.”

Larry Wainstein, a two time mayoral hopeful and longtime antagonist of the Sacco administration, said the park has been “abused” by local officials, voters were misled, and taxpayer money was wasted with the referendum not being enacted in full.

Still, one of the educators at the pre-school, Esther Ortega, expressed that she’s had a positive experience there and questioned how people could judge without seeing the operation first hand.

“I’ve been a supervisor at the pre-school,” Ortega began. “I feel it is absurd for people to judge when they have never entered the buildings. It’s like me going into a doctor’s office and opining on what medicine should take.”

NJ DEP spokeswoman Caryn Shinske told HCV that regardless of what was said at last night’s Zoom hearing, members of the public can still submit comments in writing until August 25th – the time where the township will have to make their next decision.

“At that time, the town must decide whether to proceed with its pending application or withdraw it and submit a new proposal,” she said in an email.

“The Green Acres Program looks forward to continue working with the township and county to resolve this matter.”