Mayor Steven Fulop and his city council nemesis Councilman-at-Large Rolando Lavarro sparred yesterday over the mayor’s plan to fund the operation of a new “state-of-the-art” public high school adjacent to Liberty Science Center.
At issue during the semi-monthly council caucus meeting was a resolution that would commit the city to contributing $2 million every year for thirty years towards the operation of the public school, which will be run by Hudson County Schools of Technology (HCST) which currently operates five schools open to county residents.
Along with Liberty Science Center, the school will be part of the future SciTech Scity, a 30-acre “innovation campus” billed as a “future technology hub for students, innovators, entrepreneurs, and scientists.” According to the administration, the school will “offer skill-centric science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes for 400 science-talented high school students in grades 9–12.” The administration claims that students will have access to “a work education program” at “200-plus technology startup companies…that will call SciTech Scity home.”
The school would be built with the proceeds of a $45 million bond offering.
Before yesterday’s caucus, activists like Chris Gadsden, principal of Lincoln High School, questioned the mayor’s plan. “I find [the plan] to be a little bit disrespectful to the budgetary process that’s taking place right now where the Jersey City Board of Education is asking the city to come through on its commitments to fully fund the Jersey City Schools.”
In a letter to Hudson County View, McNair Academic High School Athletic Director Kristen Zadroga-Hart asked “why are we paying the county to build and run a school that will house students from outside of Jersey City on top of the money we already pay from our County taxes? Why not invest that money in our own Jersey City Public School students?”
Several council members expressed concern that Jersey City was shouldering too much of the financial burden given that the school would be open to students from across the county. Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano said he supported the school but added, “if you’re going to include all 11 other municipalities in the county, they should be kicking in also.”
Council President Joyce Watterman said, “My concern is for the kids who may need extra help to get to that level to even get into a school like this. Lavarro concurred, opining that if standardized tests were the measure for admission, the school would not provide “an equitable opportunity.”
To these concerns, Paul Hoffman, the President and CEO of Liberty Science Center, told the council members, “We’ve already raised $300,000 for 7th and 8th graders who are really into science, but maybe their skills in math are behind some of the other children who are entering the school. So we will work with them to get their skills up so that they can enter the school on equal footing with the other students.”
Hoffman said students would be admitted based upon “science interest and science talent” but that the county had yet to develop the specific criteria.
Hoffman also said that a program in the works called “High Schools of the Future” would train Jersey City students “for 21st century jobs that they could get when they graduate” and involve commitments from employers to hire such students out of the schools.
Lavarro said, “I’m not in favor of a county school. I would like to see every single seat go to Jersey City kids.”
In a similar vein, Ward E Councilman James Solomon questioned why the city would only get a portion of the seats having donated thirteen acres of land for SciTech Scity.
With Hoffman fielding a barrage of questions, Fulop asked if he could jump in and comment.
According to Fulop, Hudson County has committed to allocate sixty percent of the available spots in the school to Jersey City students. “Hopefully it’s more than that.” Normally, based upon its population, Jersey City would receive forty percent of the seats in a county school.
Fulop called it a “gross misrepresentation” to link the city’s donation of land to the plan for the high school. “The idea behind [donating the land] was not just the high school…it was an entire ecosystem that would create scientists… and foster a global brand for Jersey City around science and technology.” The mayor predicted that the 200-plus businesses incubated at SciTech would build their headquarters in and around Jersey City.
“We explored with them this apparatus because there was no other mechanism to create the same kind of educational opportunity, the same kind of flexible curriculum, and we’re having a cost savings for Jersey City residents.”
As to the cost, Fulop said that the $2 million per year “is a massive discount to what the Jersey City taxpayers pay per school…less than $10,000 per student is a huge discount to what we pay for the Jersey City public school system.”
“This is a good thing. And it’s really sad that it’s falling in the social media world into a political conversation.”
Both Fulop and Hoffman said that the previous Jersey City Public Schools administration had been offered the opportunity to build the school but that there hadn’t been a funding mechanism by which it could be done. Nor, Fulop said, did the Jersey City Schools have a way to create “the same flexible board and the same flexible curriculum.”
The mayor called the school a “layup” for the residents and taxpayers.
To Solomon’s concern that the city doesn’t have a written promise from the county to guaranty the number of Jersey City seats, Fulop said that that’s the mechanism used at the county’s Explore 2000 School. “They’ve kept their word and exceeded it every year.”
Hoffman noted that private philanthropists have donated $5 million dollars to a public school. “They don’t have control over this school. That is something which is very unusual that we’ve been able to bring to this.”
“This is not at the expense of the Jersey City public school system.” said Fulop. “We have committed a lot… in the last year alone.”
Lavarro said he wanted to look at the neighborhood and demographic breakdown of students admitted to the Explore 2000 School. “If that’s the model for admission that’s going to be utilized…to make sure that that’s the model that you want for admission to go into this proposed county STEM school.”
The mayor said he had promised Council President Watterman that the city would “set up a program to make sure that the south side of the city actually has an infrastructure around it to support children actually getting into this school.”
Lavarro called the mayor’s promise to Council President Watterman “a recent conversation” that “didn’t go into the overall planning.” Fulop called it “an absolute false statement.”
Fulop said that Lavarro, as former Jersey City Redevelopment Authority chairman, was “the architect of the deal” and knew that making it a county school was an option. “The only thing that’s changed is that it’s an election season now.”
Resolution 21-260 is on the agenda for tomorrow night’s meeting of the Municipal Council.