For almost two decades, 17 temporary wooden trailers in James J. Braddock County Park have served as the home of the North Bergen Preschool. Since the park is operated purely as a recreational space and isn’t zoned for educational purposes, the city is in violation of the New Jersey state Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres rules.
The trailers were originally constructed as temporary wooden structures, typically for use only for five years. Opponents argue that these trailers have aged well beyond their intended use.
How was this situation allowed to persist?
Superintendent of North Bergen School District George Solter won’t speak to it, saying it happened before his tenure began.
Despite the violation, it took the NJ Department of Environmental Protection more than nine years to notice the makeshift preschool in the park. A state DEP officer noted the trailers during a routine site visit in 2010.
Since its discovery, the preschool trailer park has had its share of problems. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy nearly did in the classroom trailers. Downed electrical wires sparked a blaze that damaged two of them.
While the fires didn’t spread further, and the two trailers were refurbished, the conditions of the the power lines remained unchanged for around five years.
In 2017, secondary fire exits were installed, and some overgrown brush was removed near the power lines. Yet this only came after local activist Robert Walden brought it to the city’s attention.
“The trailers have been there since 2001, almost 19 years,” Walden said. “I am very much in favor of the preschool leaving the park. It has been operating in a very unsafe and illegal manner. They are way beyond use and falling apart on the outside. This is a safety issue and should not drag on any longer.”
The NJDEP ordered the city of North Bergen to remove the preschool from Braddock Park by August 31, 2021.
New school plan makes room for Braddock Park preschoolers
Amidst the controversy, a district-wide schools reconfiguration took place. Under the new arrangement, a new North Bergen junior high school will be built at the former location of the Hudson County High Tech High School in what is being deemed the new “West” campus for grades 7-9. North Bergen High School will be renovated for grades 10-12.
The new school means that a number of seventh and eighth graders will be taken out of the elementary schools, providing ample room to take in the preschoolers currently in Braddock Park.
Solter noted that at this time the city is still looking to bond and purchase what it calls the “West Campus” of North Bergen High School from Hudson County.
“The plan to relocate the preschoolers will be done when we renovate the schools,” Solter said. “It’s a year behind schedule. Part of the problem was the bond referendum and a lawsuit by individuals.”
Prior to carrying out the school realignment plan, the city of North Bergen held a referendum for the residents to decide whether or not the city should bond the money to buy the old High Tech High School from Hudson County.
However, not everyone was on board with the plan. Larry Wainstein was Mayor Nicholas Sacco’s challenger in the election prior to the bond referendum. Wainstein tried to put a stop to the referendum vote by filing a lawsuit. His complaint claimed that the city had been in clear violation of the Open Public Meetings Act.
However, the suit did not prevail, and a judge ruled in favor of North Bergen.
The bond referendum was allowed to proceed. If passed, it would permit the city to borrow nearly $61 million to build a junior high school on the grounds of the old Hudson County High Tech High School and fund the renovation of the existing North Bergen High School.
“We are not an Abbot District,” Solter said. “In order to get a new school we have to pay for it ourselves. The state is not going to pay for it.”
Abbot Districts are school districts that were created after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling on the case of Abbott v. Burke. In 1985, the court ruled that primary and secondary education in public schools was unconstitutionally substandard. The ruling mandated that schools in poorer districts receive the same amount of state funding as the wealthiest districts in the state.
On December 11, 2018, North Bergen residents voted in favor of the bond referendum. A year has passed, and while the bond was approved, with the state Department of Education agreeing to pay $26 million of the bond, the old High Tech High School has not been purchased from Hudson County.
North Bergen is also responsible for reimbursing the state DEP for the city’s misuse of the land in Braddock Park. To make up for the illegal usage of land, the city of North Bergen had to find acres of previously unused land to build new parks.
However, the city hasn’t made any progress on that front since 2016, according to the NJDEP Green Acres wesbite.
Solter said that while things are back on track to remove the trailer park preschool from Braddock Park, it might be another year until completion.
The new preschool will provide full day care in the classrooms. Currently, the North Bergen preschool provides only half-day care and activities for the children.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Dan Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.