Wainstein suit suspends high school expansion

Opponents charge that the appeal is baseless

Larry Wainstein's lawsuit against the Board of Ed put the expansion project on hold.
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Larry Wainstein's lawsuit against the Board of Ed put the expansion project on hold.

With a lawsuit against North Bergen’s Board of Education, mayoral hopeful Larry Wainstein has brought the township’s high school expansion project to a halt for an indefinite time.

The same charge that he filed against the Board of Education in December has resurfaced two months later in an appellate hearing. The new hearing has legally suspended renovations and expansions for the high school, until an appellate judge resolves Wainstein’s case.

“It’s puzzling that he’s running a campaign while at the same time continues to fight a project that 74 percent of voters in town approved of,” Mayor Nicholas Sacco’s campaign spokesman Phil Swibinski said. “You’d think that vote would have shut the suit down. It’s not the best campaign strategy.”

Out of the woodwork

In December, the Board of Education put out a notice that it would hold a referendum on Dec. 11, allowing voters to decide whether to issue $60 million in bonds to expand the high school.

That money would allow the district to make renovations and purchase the former campus of High Tech High School. The move would add a second campus to the school; both locations would jointly serve the township’s high school students.

Wainstein filed suit against the board in an attempt to halt the project’s deciding vote, alleging that the township hadn’t given notice early enough under New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). The case was thrown out of Hudson County Superior Court on Dec. 7, four days before the referendum took place.

The referendum passed on Dec. 11, with 74 percent of residents voting in favor of the expansion project.

Although the referendum passed, and the district has begun the first phase of the expansion, an appellate court is hearing Wainstein’s case, despite the fact that a Superior Court judge declared that the charges were not valid.

Work suspended

According to Swibinski, this appeals process has the potential for suspending work on the high school for several months.

“Sacco’s plan is to pour tens of millions of dollars into an outdated building on one of the most dangerous highways in the country,” Wainstein said. “The current proposal is not only bad for North Bergen, it is dangerous to the children of North Bergen who have to walk and commute to  school on Tonnelle Avenue.”

Wainstein alleged that Sacco held the referendum under a “cloak of darkness,” and that he “stacks the North Bergen Board of Education with family members and campaign contributors.”

What exactly is being held up? 

The expansion project promises new light and air conditioning in the current high school campus, and a new auditorium, turf field, and walkway to be installed at the former High Tech campus. State aid is slated to reimburse the township $26 million out of the total spent on the project. That aid wouldn’t be jeopardized by the delay, due to formulas in place from the 2008 School Funding Reform Act.

According to those involved in the project, it would not raise property taxes for North Bergen due to the state aid funding, the township’s financial planning, and a growing local tax base. The township plans to paying off the bonds by giving $1.25 million in PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) funds on a yearly basis.

At the most recent Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Schools George Solter said that the district had begun hiring a team of advisers to oversee development and applications.

“The only thing Wainstein will accomplish with it is making our kids wait months longer for these important school improvements.” — Anthony Vainieri

Delayed indefinitely

Swibinski announced on Feb. 5 that a moratorium on the expansion was in place due to Wainstein’s appeal.

“Wainstein lost a court decision on his baseless lawsuit when a judge threw out the case, but his appeal is now delaying school officials’ plans to implement the will of the voters by starting the School Reorganization process,” Swibinski said in a statement.

He said that township officials don’t expect anything to come of the case, other than delaying the work.

Hudson County Freeholder Anthony Vainieri, chairman of Mayor Nicholas Sacco’s 2019 campaign, said in in a statement, “This lawsuit has no basis in reality, and the only thing Wainstein will accomplish with it is making our kids wait months longer for these important school improvements to be made. It’s disgusting, but it’s no surprise coming from Larry Wainstein, someone who is obsessed with grabbing power and willing to tell any lie and hurt anyone to try and get it.”

For updates on this and other stories keep checking www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.