Wanted: uptown and downtown middle schools

No specifics yet, but the need is clear

The Bayonne school district, with nearly 10,000 students, is bursting at the seams.

That’s not news.

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District officials in the facilities committee have been meeting regularly for more than two years, devising a long-term facilities plan to expand the district to accommodate the influx of elementary school students. Earlier this year, the district received additional funding to expand all-day Pre-K to more than 500 students, further exacerbating the need for facilities expansion.

“Enrollment is growing, which is great. Taking on more students means more classrooms and more teachers,” said Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Dennis Degnan. “We’re looking for 24 new rooms. We have to expand somewhere.”

With the exception of Midtown Community School and Oresko Community School, the average age of school structures in the city is 90 years. The result of overcrowding at schools is often larger class sizes. With new schools come new technology and interior spaces better designed for learning.

Tear down and build up

“How much longer can we keep putting money into structures that are getting older and older?” said Interim Superintendent Michael A. Wanko. “Part of the plan is to take the schools in need of replacement and demolish those schools and rebuild them. That means we have to put those students somewhere.”

The district hopes to change the way it organizes its student body. Right now, community schools across the city serve students in kindergarten through 8th grade. The ideal plan for the district is to build two new middle schools, one uptown and one downtown, that would serve students in sixth through eighth grades, leaving the community schools to focus on elementary education. Some of those old community schools may be demolished, but the idea is to expand overall capacity.

“Two new facilities would be feeders for the high school because they would have a direct connection with the curriculum, which we have now, but it would be more an age-group category,” Wanko said.

Where’s the dough?

Funding new schools is costly.

High Tech High School in North Bergen, for example, cost $150 million to build. In Bayonne, where land is scarce and expensive, it would not be surprising for a new school to cost $350 per square foot. Paying for new schools is complicated. It includes a combination of bonding, which is capped; grants; and tax levies, which is also capped. Bayonne’s debt stands at around $80 million.

The financial burden of new school construction does not fall solely on local taxpayers, who have seen property taxes rise by 23.8 percent since 2010. Tax revenue from residents across the state is pooled and, along with federal grants raised from taxpayers across the country, is distributed by the NJ Schools Development Authority for school construction. The SDA was established in 2002.

“We must stop throwing good money after bad by putting band aids on old schools.” — Mayor James Davis

Mayor James Davis made clear in his annual state of the city address in April that expanding school facilities is a priority.

“We need to develop this plan in a manner that ensures that effects on the Bayonne taxpayer are minimized,” Davis said. “We must stop throwing good money after bad by putting band aids on old schools, and invest in our future by building new, efficient, and modern schools that will serve our future generations.”

The SDA distributes grants to school districts to help pay for new construction. School districts can get up to 40 percent of those costs covered. Currently, however, no more funds are available for these grants, after the SDA exhausted $2.3 billion in construction funds approved by the legislature in 2008.

Dozens of education and civil rights organizations are urging Gov. Phil Murphy to increase funding for school construction. Murphy last week appointed an interim replacement for the former head of the SDA, who recently resigned. Funding for the organization will determine how and whether new schools in places like Bayonne are built.

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Rory Pasquariello can be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com.

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