It’s hard to deny the initial allure of the mayor’s plan to build Liberty Science Center High School, a $45 million “state-of-the-art” facility that would “offer skill-centric science, technology, engineering, and math classes for 400 science-talented high school students in grades 9–12.” Throw in the promise of “a work education program” for students at “200-plus technology startup companies,” and it seems like a no brainer, a “lay up” in the mayor’s parlance.
But like that house you came close to buying that was bigger than you needed and way more money than you could afford, the more you think about the mayor’s latest splashy project, the more you realize it doesn’t make sense.
Let’s start with the cost, which is attracting the lion’s share of outrage on social media. The memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) commits Jersey City to kicking in $2 million per year for thirty years for the operation of the county-run school. At first blush, it doesn’t sound like that much in the context of the city’s $628 million budget and the recently adopted $827 million Jersey City Schools budget. And if, as the mayor does, you divide that $2 million by the 240 students from Jersey City who are guaranteed to attend, it looks like a terrific deal. It’s a huge discount when compared with what Jersey City Schools spend per student, the mayor says.
But there are problems. First there’s the simple matter of the mayor’s math. Sure, the cost would be less per student if the board of ed were to cut the school budget by its cost to educate 240 students. But the Jersey City School’s administration has, as far as we know, made no such commitment. If the school budget doesn’t go down and the city spends more, that’s no savings at all.
Then there’s the problem brought up by Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano. Why is there no similar commitment from the other Hudson County municipalities that would send their students to the school? Jersey City taxpayers have every right to an answer.
Apart from the cost, there’s the equally important question of whether another gleaming, tricked-out, high school is what Jersey City or Hudson County, for that matter, needs. Currently, only 49.7 percent of Jersey City students meet or exceed state English language arts expectations and 33.6 percent of Jersey City students meet or exceed state math expectations. Only 75.3 percent of high school students graduate in four years.
These catastrophic numbers speak not to the need for more programs for high-performing students who already have multiple options including McNair, Infinity, High Tech and County Prep but to the need for massive intervention with the many at-risk students.
Finally there’s timing. The potential attraction of the SciTech site for the school would be the presence of “200-plus technology startup companies” that would theoretically provide internship and employment opportunities to students. Building the school before those businesses are a reality would be taking a huge risk. Let’s hope they materialize. But if they don’t, the school will end up an out-of-the-way white elephant.
Mayor Fulop has demonstrated a fondness for large, newsworthy projects be it the massive Bayfront development, the new police headquarters or the construction of Skyway Park. These hugely expensive projects have been announced at the very same time that the budget for youth recreation has been cut. One can only imagine the after-school programs and facilities that could be built with even a fraction of the funds going towards them.
If the mayor wants to improve educational outcomes in Jersey City, he will focus not on shiny “branding” opportunities like Liberty Science Center High School but on the thousands of struggling Jersey City kids crying out for his help.