After the polls closed at 8 p.m. on Dec. 11, North Bergen spokesman Philip Swibinski declared that 3,800 voters favored and 1,300 opposed a $60 million bond issue enabling the purchase of High Tech High School’s former campus on Tonnelle Avenue that will divide the township high school into a west and east campus.
“I would like to thank the voters of North Bergen for their support on a brutally cold day in our efforts to finally give our children the excellent school facilities they deserve while protecting taxpayers,” said Mayor Nicholas Sacco, a vocal supporter of the project. “This outstanding result shows that the community agrees strongly with our vision for improving our schools, despite the constant lies and deception from political opponents who stood against our schoolchildren.”
Sacco critic and mayoral hopeful Larry Wainstein filed a suit against the North Bergen Board of Education on Nov. 30 in an attempt to halt the referendum vote.
Wainstein claimed in Hudson County Superior Court that, according to New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, the board did not give proper public notice for the special meeting in which the referendum was introduced.
Wainstein’s suit was dismissed on Dec. 7.
Making way for opportunity
North Bergen’s Board of Education reported that the building that was once the home of High Tech High School will become North Bergen High School West. The current North Bergen High School on JFK Blvd. will become North Bergen High School East.
The west campus will house grades 7-9, along with Culinary Arts and Expanded Career Technical Education programs for grades 9-12. The plan will also add an auditorium, turf field, and student walkway.
The east campus will house grades 10-12. The Board of Education is eyeing new programs focused on business, performing arts, medical arts, and STEM subjects. Renovations to air conditioning and lighting on the east campus are also in the budget. The east campus will be made fully accessible.
Schools Superintendent George Solter announced that with the technical education programs the project enables, students can earn college credits through a partnership with Hudson County Community College.
“All of our technical programs will be associated with Hudson County Community College, and students will be able to come out of high school with anywhere from 15 to 30 college credits,” Solter said. “We’re also reaching out to trade unions, carpenters, and masons to participate in our technical education program. We have a real shortage of students applying themselves in trade fields.”
In a special meeting held on Dec. 7, Solter also said that in carrying out the plan the district aims to use the increase in available classrooms to hire additional faculty and reduce class sizes on a district-wide level.
Financing the expansion
Following the voters’ approval of the bond issue, state aid will pay back $26 million of the borrowed funds, leaving $34 million to be paid by the township. State aid will kick in, according to the guidelines of the 2008 School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which states that a formula will be provided for “every school district based on the characteristics of the student population and up-to-date measurements of the district’s ability to pay.” The SFRA also accounts for increases in the number of students over time.
“The Township has always had a great relationship with our school district, and our support of the project will make it even stronger” — Phil Swibinski
Board of Education members report that there will be no property tax increase. Instead, the board said an agreement was made between the high school and the township to dedicate $1.25 million to paying off the bonds on an annual basis from Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) funds. This agreement, however, is not contractually bound.
“There isn’t any one precedent in place for how governments finance projects such as this one,” North Bergen spokesman Philip Swibinski said. “The fact that there isn’t a contract in place should be no cause of concern for residents. Even without a contract, I’d describe this agreement as ironclad. The township has always had a great relationship with our school district, and our support of the project will make it even stronger.”
According to the Board of Education’s reports, the state’s School Development Authority currently owes the district $9 million, which will also be put toward the school’s expansion.
Mike Montemarano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org