Second Ward Councilman Richard Konopka was on a roll Tuesday night, May 24, recounting enjoyable stopovers to the PBA food truck event, the opening of LA Fitness on Passaic Ave., the Helo Holdings heliport, the Fishing Derby in West Hudson Park.
Then, he recalled, there was the Kearny High-hosted track meet he attended with a co-worker from his full-time job on April 16 and that’s when his tone suddenly shifted.
Looking around and seeing unfinished construction, perimeter fencing and classroom trailers still occupying the school’s front lawn, “As a resident of Kearny, I was embarrassed,” the councilman said. “That school’s a disaster. What is going on over there?”
While serving as a member of the Kearny Zoning Board of Adjustment in 2011, Konopka recalled how representatives of the Kearny Board of Education came before the board and “presented beautiful renderings” of the KHS project and “told us it would cost nothing” because it was grant-funded.
Now, he said, after having learned that the project has been scaled back in design, that the job is awash in litigation and that the most recent projection calls for completion by 2019, he has become a skeptic.
“I have a son in seventh-grade and I don’t think [the work] is going to be finished by the time he’s ready to enter the ninth-grade,” Konopka said.
It’s even more discouraging, he added, when, on the municipal side, elected officials are “trying to hold the line” on expenses while, at the same time, “trying to be fair to our workers and taxpayers.”
Fourth Ward Councilman Michael Landy, a middle school principal in the Harrison school system, echoed his colleague’s disappointment, saying that, with sections of the school torn up awaiting renovation, “it looks like a third world country,” and that, unfortunately, “a lot of good work by teachers, staff and students is taken away by the surroundings they’re in.”
Another out-of-town educator, Third Ward Councilman Eileen Eckel, felt that Kearny teachers “are succeeding” despite being up against it but added that if she were living somewhere else and considering Kearny as a future residence but checked out Kearny High, “If I had kids, there’s no way I’d move into this town.”
The Board of Education “needs to rely on its professionals” to guide them on such things as school construction and “there needs to be accountability,” said Eckel, herself a former member of the Kearny Board of Education. Even with constant BOE personnel flux and years of “underfunding” by the state, the district has managed to steady the helm, she added, “but now it seems to be unraveling.”
Yet another delay in the high school project cropped up recently when, according to district facilities director Mark Bruscino, non-friable asbestos was detected in the caulking behind casement windows in the auditorium slated for replacement under the Aircraft Noise Abatement part of the high school project.
“Most likely,” he said, “we’ll wait until the summer when no one will be in the school” to resolve the issue by hiring an environmental contractor.
Meanwhile, appeals filed by rival contractors who submitted bids for completion of major renovations involving creation of new classrooms, a cafetorium and a modified atrium at the high school were due to be heard by Hudson County Superior Court on May 31. Whether the dispute can be resolved in time to allow work to start during the summer break remains to be seen.
Mayor Alberto Santos said that during recent visits to various schools in the district he has seen good things happening, including positive feedback from parents at Washington School during its Career Day along with an “amazing” science program and greenhouse at Lincoln Middle School.
“The issue at the high school is one of construction management [and] at the end of the day, it falls on the Board of Education administration to resolve those contract issues” that, he said, have apparently resulted in “cost overruns” and protracted litigation. “And, at this point, I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”