The state Department of Environmental Protection slapped down North Bergen’s pre-application to keep its pre-K school trailers inside a county park in a review released this week.
In a six-page “completeness review,” dated Oct. 5, DEP officials said the township’s pre-application was missing key components and documentation to move forward. The review also questioned how little analysis North Bergen did toward identifying alternate sites for the pre-K.
“It’s obvious from the pre-application completeness review that NJ DEP Green Acres is not happy with North Bergen’s latest attempt to keep its 20-year-old ‘temporary’ 17-trailer preschool in Braddock Park,” said Bob Walden, a North Bergen resident who has criticized both the township and the DEP over the trailers.
In the year 2000, North Bergen illegally removed a Green Acres-funded softball field in James J. Braddock North Hudson Park and placed pre-K trailers there as a temporary fix to the overcrowding problem in the schools. Some 21 years later, despite repeated demands by the DEP and promises by the district to remove the trailers, North Bergen is trying to make the pre-K location inside the North Bergen High School football complex at the park permanent.
The process is complicated, since North Bergen has to show that no other properties are available for a school, and the township also has to provide the county with replacement parkland at a ratio of 5 to 1. North Bergen has asked to have the ratio lowered to 3 to 1. North Bergen also illegally built its EMS on a Green Acres-funded playground on 43rd Street, and must find parkland to replace that as well.
“The township, Board of Education and Hudson County are committed to working with the NJDEP to finalize this process in order to better serve our youngest students by providing them with a full day program and modern facilities to enhance their learning experience, while being fiscally responsible and protecting the taxpayers,” North Bergen spokesman JP Escobar said.
The review points out that North Bergen bonded for $60 million in 2018 and formed a school district realignment plan that would move the trailers out of the park. The plan included buying the former High Tech High School and moving all seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders there. Students in grades 10, 11 and 12 would stay at North Bergen High School.
“After 10 years of delays and false promises to do so, North Bergen should now remove the preschool from Braddock Park and place all the preschoolers into elementary schools as it promised, and as voters voted, when they approved the $60 million bond referendum for the NB school realignment plan,” Walden said.
The new state budget includes $10 million to advance the North Bergen school district plan. Escobar said the funding “will allow (the district) to offset the purchase of the High Tech High School building, enabling the district to utilize the previously bonded funds to make various improvements throughout the district’s schools.”
Hudson County and DEP officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Criticisms and questions in the review included:
- “Please explain why the $65 million bond for the purchase of the (High Tech) High School cannot be used to implement the publicly shared plan to re‐locate the entire Pre‐K to a location outside of Braddock Park.”
- “Please explain why the $10 million line item in the FY22 State Budget for North Bergen to acquire property for schools cannot be used to re‐locate the entire Pre‐K to a location outside of Braddock Park.”
- “We received complaints that preference was given to North Bergen residents and elected officials during the scoping hearing, allowing them to speak first. This resulted in the exclusion of other Hudson County residents and all non‐county residents, even though the park is county‐owned and subject to Green Acres restrictions for the benefit of all New Jersey residents.”
The DEP also said in the review that North Bergen has not answered some of the most basic questions posed by commenters in the public scope hearing, like “Why is it appropriate for a portion of a county park to be diverted to serve the school needs for one Hudson County municipality?” and “Why is the county proposing to divert parkland when there is not adequate parkland in the county?”