By Ron Leir
Holy Cross parish, which has been seeking a new tenant for its former parochial school building on Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard South since the Lady Liberty Academy charter school left last summer, has been attracting a lot of interest lately from neighboring school districts and others.
But, so far, the parish is keeping an open mind, according to the Rev. Joseph Girone, pastor of Holy Cross Church. Two possibilities for renting the facility came to light recently, he said.
One, he said, was a proposal by the Northern New Jersey Hua Zia Chinese School, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 which currently offers Chinese language classes for children and adults, along with karate, Chinese painting, calligraphy and dancing, chess, violin, fitness and singing, at Verona High School.
Harrison may offer the school an attractive alternative location because of its increasing Asian demographics. The 2010 U.S. Census reported that 16.3% of Harrison’s population was Asian and, according to Wikipedia, the 2000 Census had 7.2% of the town’s residents being of Chinese ancestry. “This was the fifth-highest percentage of people with Chinese ancestry in any place in New Jersey with 1,000 or more residents identifying their ancestry,” Wikipedia noted
“They were looking for a space to use on Saturday afternoons, from 1 to 4 p.m.,” Girone said.
However, that may not offer the optimal use of the space, in terms of potential rental revenues, he suggested.
The other, somewhat more enticing opportunity, Girone said, came from a visit a few weeks ago by East Newark Public School Superintendent/ Principal Patrick Martin, an attorney and architect.
“They have no gym and no cafeteria and they had an interest in renting space here,” Girone said. “We toured the school building and we showed them our gym and classrooms.”
But, Girone said, “This is not the first time East Newark has approached us” about the notion of acquiring additional educational space. A few years ago, similar overtures were made, he recalled.
When asked about the visit, Martin told The Observer that, without any coaxing from his school board or municipal officials, he had reached out to the priest and asked to check out the school in the company of attorney Vito Gagliardi, who advises the school board on special projects, and an architect who came as a personal favor.
“This [East Newark Public School] is a wonderful building we’re in,” Martin said, “but it is 118 years old and we make the most of it. We have no gym, no auditorium, no science lab, no media center. So, over the years, the school administration has been looking for additional space and now we’re looking once again.”
Another issue that the school has to deal with, he said, happens at lunchtime, “when we bring children to the borough Rec Center where they can walk around and play a bit but that’s four blocks away and in the cold weather we’ve been having recently, that’s a hardship for our kids.”
Still, Martin said, “We’re nowhere near making a commitment [to rent the Harrison space]. It’s still very much in the exploratory phase. We could end up staying where we are for the next 50 years – we’re just exploring all possibilities.”
Next step for East Newark, Martin said, “is to see if it’s possible if we could fit into the school.” The architect will advise how much it would cost to retrofit the building as a school facility to the most current state standards and codes, as, for example, compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), he explained.
Given the age of the building, that could be an expensive proposition, Martin said.
Some months ago, representatives of the Harrison Board of Education came to the parish to discuss the possibility of the BOE buying the school building and using it as a school for early grades and special needs kids who are currently bused out of district but Girone said, so far, nothing has come of it. In any event, Girone said, “I’m not crazy about the idea of selling the (school) building because we have our own religious education classes there Friday nights and some parish events on other days.”
Harrison and East Newark schools are also competing on another, more significant level, with the borough looking to send its high school age population to Kearny High, instead of Harrison High – where they’ve been going for over a century. A state decision is awaited.