What’s up with North Bergen’s high school expansion?

School board plans still suspended pending an appellate hearing

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A rendering of the design for the former High Tech High School site.
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A rendering of planned upgrades to North Bergen High School's current site.
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A rendering of the design for the former High Tech High School site.
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A rendering of planned upgrades to North Bergen High School's current site.

On Dec. 11, North Bergen’s Board of Education held a special election so voters could decide whether the township should issue $34 million in long-term bonds to finance a major expansion of North Bergen High School.

Seven months later, that plan hangs suspended, due to legal action against the referendum filed by Diana Ortiz, who ran unsuccessfully for a commissioner slot in the May 14 municipal election.

The plan involves the purchase of High Tech High School’s former campus on Tonnelle Avenue and the construction of an auditorium, turf field, and walkway at the former High Tech school.

The rest of the funding, which would total $60 million, would come from three sources: $26 million in school construction aid from the state will be granted if the project goes through, along with state aid from the School Funding Reform Act.

To offset the bonds, the township agreed to contribute $1.25 million annually from Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) funds. While that agreement hasn’t been contractually bound, town spokesman Phil Swibinski said the township’s commitment to aid the school board is “absolutely ironclad,” and should be no cause for concern.

Days before the Dec. 11 vote, Mayor Nicholas Sacco’s electoral rival at the time, Larry Wainstein, filed a lawsuit alleging that the township violated the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), also known as Sunshine Law, when distributing public notice of the vote. Wainstein was represented by attorney Mario Blanch, who has represented him in several cases before and after the suit against the Board of Education.

That suit was thrown out of Hudson County Superior Court just days before the vote took place. A majority of voters turned out in favor of the expansion plan, 3,800 to 1,300.

Off to appellate court

Some seven months later, the township is still legally unable to start the project, despite residents approving it with a 74-percent margin. Shortly after Wainstein’s charges were dismissed, Ortiz filed a lawsuit to have Wainstein’s case heard in appeals court, challenging the judge’s verdict favoring the North Bergen Board of Education. Ortiz ran on Wainstein’s ticket in the May 14 elections in North Bergen, and was represented by Blanch in this case.

The lengthy appeals hearing centers around whether the school district gave sufficient public notice of the vote in compliance with the state’s Sunshine Law.

Last month, Blanch filed a motion to withdraw from the case as Ortiz’s counsel. He wrote that there was a breakdown in the attorney/client relationship between himself and Ortiz, and that Wainstein’s election loss was relevant to his motion to withdraw.

“It was the opinion of the undersigned that the [lawsuit against the Board of Education] should be dismissed as the election was over,” Blanch wrote, “and continuing the matter would serve no purpose, as the “people had spoken” and elected someone other than Mr. Wainstein.” In his opinion, all of Ortiz’s pending matters should be dismissed or resolved.

“On or about June 13, 2019, [Ortiz] came to [my office] accompanied by Mr. Joseph Mocco and Mr. Ryan Young to discuss various pending matters,” Blanch wrote. “Plaintiff and counsel had a disagreement as to how to handle multiple matters, including this one, which has led to the breakdown of the attorney/client relationship.”

Blanch wrote that he and Ortiz had reached an impasse in planning a course of action, as “the parties can no longer communicate with each other or see eye to eye.”

He later told The Hudson Reporter that he hasn’t yet heard from the court regarding his motion to withdraw, and that he is no longer involved in the case. For that reason, he declined to comment on any other aspects of the hearing.

At press time, The Hudson Reporter was unable to obtain contact information for Ortiz, so that she could comment on the case.

Onward and upward

According to Superintendent of Schools George Solter, the district is still working on the expansion plans. He said that supporters of the project are confident the decision will be in their favor.

While the hearing is holding up construction funding, Solter said that the district is working to get any planning done that they can, to hit the ground running if the project is approved.

“In any event, on our end, we’re still planning everything out,” Solter said. “We had meetings at our level to figure out transportation, security, the new curriculum, the instructional facilities, and our projections for both construction and the expanded programs we’ll be offering to our students. Our commitment is to give the students a facility that’s first rate, and expand our programs to include career education. We want to alleviate the crowding, and we want to assimilate the pre-kindergarten back into the schools, from their location in Braddock Park.”

Relocating the preschool is imperative to adhere to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program. According to a 2017 DEP violations report, Braddock Park land was diverted from its intended use without DEP approval.

After the district made “reasonable efforts” to find a location for its preschool, and time was running out to satisfy Department of Education standards for pre-k education, the district received approval from the county government to use land in Braddock Park to install the trailers, which turned out to be in violation of DEP Green Acres program policy. The report stated that Green Acres was never notified about the diversion of park land.

“First, while it was the applicant’s responsibility to notify Green Acres prior to placing the TCUs in Braddock Park, it is also true that the directive which created the need which led to the placement of the TCUs on the park was made by a sister state agency (The New Jersey Department of Education),” a Green Acres violations report read. “Secondly, the applicants demonstrated that, despite the fact that the North Bergen Township made reasonable efforts to locate a permanent school site to satisfy that mandate, those efforts proved unsuccessful. Faced with a tight time frame in which to satisfy the state mandate, the BOE was compelled to act quickly to obtain Hudson County’s approval to locate the trailers on the park.”

The preschool must be relocated from the Braddock Park trailers no later than Aug.31, 2021, according to a 2017 DEP report. The DEP required the township to construct additional acres of parkland to compensate for the park property that was diverted.

The DEP wrote, “Finally, compensation for the diversion will entail not only replacement land but also lease payments to Hudson County to be used for recreation and conservation purposes,” indicating that the township will incur unspecified costs for using the county’s park property as a school site.

Solter said that the school board anticipated that the appeals court would have reached a decision by now. Updates will be provided to North Bergen residents and The Hudson Reporter as soon as a decision is reached.

For updates on this and more stories check hudsonreporter.com or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.