Cautiously optimistic, the Hoboken Board of Education approved last week an updated $200 million construction plan that will be submitted to the state’s Schools Construction Corp.
The plan includes the rehabilitation of four existing schoolhouses and the construction of two new schools (a high school and another elementary school).
Also, the Board of Education is proposing a configuration in which there are two pre-K through fifth grade primary schools, four pre-K through eighth grade schools, and one high school.
But will it be funded?
The New Jersey SCC, a subsidiary corporation of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, was created in 2002 to implement the state Supreme Court’s New Jersey Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act.
The goal of the act was to invest $8.6 billion in public school construction in New Jersey over the next decade. Included in this money was at least $6 billion for the renovation and construction projects in 31 “special needs” urban school districts, known as the Abbott school districts, of which Hoboken is one. But the SCC became a black hole for taxpayer dollars, with massive cost overruns, slow progress, and little oversight.
In February, the Newark Star-Ledger published a damning exposé showing that schools being built in the suburbs were costing 45 percent less, on average, than those in districts where the state SCC oversaw construction.
On July 28, state officials approved the last 59 projects that the original $6 billion could fund. Many others were left in limbo.
Two Hoboken projects, the renovation of the Salvatore R. Calabro Primary School and Thomas G. Connors Primary School for a combined $24 million, were included in the list of 59 fully funded projects. But plans to build a new high school in Hoboken’s northwest redevelopment zone were stalled.
The courts step in, again
Now the state Supreme Court was left to decide how to move forward in following its mandate without the money.
On Dec. 19, the State Supreme Court declined to order an immediate infusion of cash for school construction, but did require the Department of Education to supply an estimate of future costs for its cash-strapped program by Feb. 15.
In addition, the court ordered the Abbott communities to file updated construction plans with the state by Jan. 15. This is what Hoboken has put together.
Superintendent of School Patrick Gagliardi said Tuesday night the Supreme Court’s request for an estimate of the total cost of construction is an indicator that the courts are still committed to school construction, despite past problems.
“The key to the whole thing is that we have the Supreme Court on our side,” Gagliardi said. “Now it’s up to the state to find the money.”
Hoboken’s Director of Development Tim Calligy added that there are no assurances, but he is confident that the construction and renovations will happen.
“This is about as close as you can get to a guarantee,” Calligy said. “We’re in a very good position right now. It took the Supreme Court to put everything back on track.”
Currently, Hoboken has three elementary schools that include pre-K through fifth grade, two middle schools (sixth through eighth) and one high school (ninth through twelfth).
Under the new plan, Connors and Calabro would remain pre-K through fifth grade elementary schools. Both of these schools have been approved and fully funded for multi-million dollar renovations by the SCC. The rehabilitation of Connors will cost $14.5 million, while the gut rehab of the Calabro School will cost around $8.8 million.
It is also proposed that The Joseph F. Brandt Middle School and Wallace Primary school be renovated, but those projects have not yet received funding. But if they do, the Board of Education plans to convert both of these buildings into pre-K through eighth grade schools.
The largest piece of the Board of Education’s plan is the proposed construction of a new high school on a six-acre piece of property near the now-vacant former Cognis Chemical plant on 12th Street from Adams to Madison streets.
The proposed new high school would include 32 classrooms, a gymnasium, music room, science labs, an auditorium, a cafeteria, media center, wood shop, horticulture lab, planetarium, an ITV lab, daycare, a technology lab, and administrative offices. It will have a student capacity of 852.
The current high school will be downsized and converted into pre-K through 8. According to Calligy, the building will be reduced in size from 195,000 square feet to about 150,000 square feet. He added that current plans call for a play area, and a circular drop-off would be added at the refitted school.
Finally, in about a decade, when all of the construction is complete, the A.J. Demarest Middle School on Garden Street, which will be used as swing space during construction, will be closed and converted for some other public use, said Calligy.
How much money?
One of the big questions is, how much is this all going to cost?
According to Calligy, the SCC has already approved $24 million for Connors and Calabro, which could start this year, and $19 million in emergency safety renovations, which have already been completed.
Calligy added that the renovation of the Wallace, and Brandt schools, the refitting of Hoboken High School, and the construction of a new high school and new Pre-K through eighth grade school will cost an estimated $158 million.
“That’s a conservative estimate based on an analysis of regional [construction costs],” Calligy said Tuesday. “We believe that is a realistic number.”
In total, including what has already been approved and what is proposed, the district could spend around $200 million on school construction.
But how realistic?
Calligy said Tuesday that the district has several things going for it. First, all of the projects, except for the downsizing of the current high school, are well along in the design phase.
In fact, he said, the SCC has continued to fund the environmental studies of the Cognis Property. He added that as of Tuesday, Cognis still intends to sell the property to the SCC and has given no indication that they might look for other buyers.
Also, Calligy said that Hoboken is still an Abbott “special needs” District (see sidebar), and that it’s projected that the city’s student population will increase over the next several years.
One of the district biggest problems over the past several decades has been declining enrollment. But with the city’s renaissance, more families are choosing to stay in Hoboken. While enrollment in the high school continues to decrease, enrollment in the 3- and 4-year-old programs and elementary school are increasing.
He said demographic projections by the Board of Education show that by 2010, the district is poised to grow by about 1,050 students, with the most growth at the elementary school level.
Currently, there is pending legislation that would provide more than $2 billion as “bridge” funding so that some of the stalled projects can be funded and started.
Calligy said that he is optimistic that most, if not all, of the Hoboken projects will be approved in this round of funding.
A change in configuration
Meanwhile, the board members said Tuesday night that parents have been requesting a change back to the pre-K through eighth grade configuration for years.
Over the past five years, there has been a trend to move away from middle school and back to the kindergarten through eighth grade model.
The change, said board members, would allow siblings to attend the same school and for a smoother progression of their education.
There is research to suggest that the kindergarten through eighth configuration is good for young adolescents because the schools eliminate a disruptive transition when children are particularly insecure.
Also, the district has seen many students leave the public schools between primary school and middle school. Changing the configuration of grades, they said, should help in the retention of students.