Newark board OKs plan to sell off 12 former school buildings

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on February 24, 2016

The former Burnet Street School in Newark, one of 12 properties the city's school district will transfer to the Newark Housing Authority.

 

NEWARK – The city's school district is planning to jettison 12 properties as part of its latest strategy to fix its ailing budget.

At a School Advisory Board meeting Tuesday night, Superintendent of Schools Chris Cerf said the buildings, including 10 schools, a former day care and an office facility, will be conveyed to the Newark Housing Authority. The NHA will then assess whether they can be re-purposed into housing or sold off to developers for other purposes.

The move should help free up $2 million to $4 million in annual insurance and maintenance costs, according to Cerf, putting a dent in an estimated budget deficit that, despite an increase of $27.5 million in state funding, stands at about $50 million for the 2016-17 school year.

"That's approximately 20 to 40 teachers, for example," he said. "As we solve our budget challenges we would rather get that money into the hands of schools."

The proposal met with some resistance from both board members and the public, many of whom made oblique references to 18th Avenue School, which former superintendent Cami Anderson ordered closed in 2012 and eventually sold off to a group affiliated with the KIPP network of charter schools.

Betty Maloney, a city resident and former guidance counselor at Morton Street School – one of the facilities set to be transferred - said she feared what she called a "historic" building would be sold off in a similar fashion.

"It's not something just to be given away and for someone to make a profit on it," she said.

In an interview Wednesday, Mayor Ras Baraka said he was generally supportive of the plan, and believed the Housing Authority's role should put any perception of backroom dealing with charter networks to rest.

"People are thinking about 18th Avenue," Baraka said. "By giving the schools to the Housing Authority, it takes them out of it. I believe we have more say so and control over than the district itself. To me it's a better situation for us."

At Tuesday's meeting, Cerf assured attendees and board members that all proceeds from any eventual sale would go to the district's capital improvement fund, and that any building could be reclaimed if the Housing Authority failed to find a suitable use within a reasonable amount of time.

The Paolo Friere Charter School is currently leasing one of the buildings, the former Burnet Street School, but Cerf stressed he had been assured by NHA Exectuive Director Keith Kinard that it would remain there through the end of the 2016-17 school year.

"These are buildings that we are being told overwhelmingly are not subject to reuse as a school," he said. "This is literally costing us $2-4 million a year. That is in the best interest of children (to sell it)."

The board ultimately voted 6-2 in favor of the transfers, with Donald Jackson and Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson casting the opposing votes. Dashay Carter, who works in the Housing Authority's human resources department, abstained.

Baskerville-Richardson voiced the loudest objection, advocating for the resolution to be put off until March in order to better evaluate the properties and provide information about the potential sales to residents.

"I have no problem voting at the end of the day in what is in the interest in the students of Newark and making our district whole and solvent, however a vote of this magnitude for me has lasting repercussions," she said. "We are letting go of 12 properties, potentially, which is no small thing."

Remaining members, however, said they believed the transfers would ultimate prove a boon to the district's troubled bottom line.

"I'm comfortable with turning these buildings over," said Vice Chair Marque-Aquil Lewis. "We're asking NHA to come in as real estate agents to sell this property for us. It is clear that this money will be going into capital funding."

The 12 properties set to be transferred are: Maple Avenue School, Maple Avenue School Annex, State Street building (office), Dayton Street School, William Brown Academy, Benjamin Banneker School, Clinton Avenue School, Mary Wheeler Willis Day Care Center, Morton Street School, Roseville Avenue School and Warren Street School.

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