Jersey City Together (JCT) gathered at Lincoln High School to celebrate progress and advocated for the completion of new water fountains in all of the public schools.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
“The JCMUA [municipal utilities authority] and the JCBOE [board of education] have made substantial progress. We will keep advocating until the job is done,” said Jim Nelson, a leader with Jersey City Together.
Dana Patton, a local parent and JCT Education Team leader, noted the struggles since their last forum on the issue in the fall.
“Since returning to in-person learning, we’ve had water coolers that are broken, coolers with pieces of plastic floating in them,” she recalled.
“I’m thankful that work at my school is nearing completion. But I want all the schools, all the children, to have the beautiful fountains that Lincoln High School has now.”
“Water is the source of everything. We have to make sure we have clean water … for our new generation,” said Imam Ahmad Shedded, of the Jersey City Islamic Center.
Lincoln High School Principal Chris Gadsden commended the work of JCT to get things done in the city, further stating that the pipes of the main building of Lincoln High School had been fixed.
“We are slowly removing the water bottles away and our kids are becoming more and more acclimated,” Gadsden continued.
Nelson explained that an inadequate supply and logistical issues for water bottles and coolers have hurt students over the years.
“We campaigned for a collaborative solution,” he added, crediting Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, the BOE, and MUA making progress on the issue. MUA Executive Director Jose Cunha was also present at the meeting.
“The MUA worked to double the number of fountains in schools. We thank you. You are all water champions,” he said, continuing that this will be appreciated when the temperature hits 90 degrees tomorrow.
State funding grants have helped install the replaced infrastructure, which is now very modern to ensure clean drinking water, noted Jersey City Director of Infrastructure Barkha Patel.
“I really can’t take any credit for the incredible work that has happened already,” she said, commending the MUA for their efforts, as well as noting they are working on sustainable and water efforts elsewhere in the city.
“Restoring our urban canopy and increasing the number of trees … is a real significant need to … combat climate change,” she explained.
Cunha noted the project was starting when he became MUA executive director in 2019, but progress initially went slow and was further hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He noted that when Nelson explained the issue to him, he was astounded. He also praised Fulop, Council President Joyce Waterman, and his deputy, LeKendrick Shaw, who is also a BOE trustee.
“Let’s continue working,” Cunha said, noting that the BOE will be more involved going forward.
Jersey City Superintendent of Schools Dr. Norma Fernandez was not eager to put specific dates on the project since delays seem to be inevitable regardless of the circumstances.
“Whenever construction tells you it will only take three months, it will take six,” she said.
However, Fernandez said by November, they should be able to award a contractor to complete the last phase, which should start in December or January.
She explained said their new Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) update would have plans to maintain the modernized water infrastructure.
“If money weren’t an issue, it would be done as soon as possible. The work continues to go on … We are committed to this project for our students. We all want the work done yesterday.”
Fernandez said they’ve been testing the completed projects to ensure compliance.
She said Gov. Phil Murphy (D) reimbursed them for some funding to complete the work, but, “we’ve had big cuts in our budget” and also cited supply chain issues. Despite the challenges, she said they’re still making progress weekly.
“It’s good to have a good source of drinking water for everyone,” Lincoln High School senior student Steven Fleming, a member of the National Honor Society, stated.
“We will keep up the pressure until every child has access to safe drinking water,” Patton replied.
Water fountains at most public schools had been turned off between 2006 and 2013 due to high lead levels.
Since 2018, Jersey City Together has been advocating for safe, running drinking water fountains to be available in every Jersey City public school. Between 2019 and July 2022, 15 schools were completed.
The schools that still need to be fixed are Public Schools No. 11, 20, 23, 24, 26, and 30, as well as A. Harry Moore, the Lincoln High School Grade 9 building, Liberty High School, Renaissance Institute, Cunningham Early Childhood, Danforth Early Childhood, Infante Early Childhood, and West Side Early Childhood.
As of this writing, more than 4,500 students in a dozen schools and Early Childhood Center buildings lack access to working water fountains, though the BOE and MUA have agreed to partner to remediate another 17 schools by the end of the year.
JCT members estimated that 18,000 students now have access to clean, safe drinking fountains due to their continued advocacy.