When a new high school focusing on skilled trades, interior design, and architecture was introduced to the public last year, Superintendent Roger León called it an “unheard initiative” to provide students with unique internships and apprenticeships in the field.
At an invite-only ceremony in May, school and city officials, developers, and architects gathered at the future site of the new Newark High School of Architecture and Interior Design, as León and other leaders dipped shovels into a mound of dirt marking the formal beginning of construction.
But as the district continues to promote a fall 2023 opening for the school, confusion and drama have consumed the construction process.
At the former St. James Hospital location, home of the future high school, the facade of the building remains intact with rooms open to the air and visible to pedestrians on the sidewalk. At the fenced-off property, a trio of red stop-work order papers is taped to one of the back doors, a contrast to the district banners announcing the arrival of the new high school.
Over the last couple of months, the state launched an investigation into the developer of the property, workers filed state complaints over unfair wages, and the landlord of the property said the deal with the district was void resulting in the Department of Labor issuing the stop-work order on the property on the second day of the school year.
The district has not responded to questions from Chalkbeat about the project’s legal snags, but on the first day of Newark Public Schools, León appeared on Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka’s podcast, “Ras in 60,” making no mention of the state’s involvement in the process. Instead, he highlighted the importance of the project.
“One of the things that we will teach these students is the importance of this business, so the importance of being in a bargaining unit, the importance of protecting their health, their finances,” said León during the podcast. “All of that will be part of the strategy because we don’t want any of these students to ever be in a situation that compromises their health and safety.”
New school would revitalize vacant building
The Newark High School of Architecture and Interior Design, district officials said, would bring life to the dilapidated St. James Hospital building that has stood vacant for years in the city’s East Ward. They envisioned a school that would help address the nation’s shortage of skilled trade workers while drawing students away from private and charter schools.
The new high school is set to focus on three trades – plumbing, electricity, and HVAC – and give students the opportunity to study architecture and interior design in a sleek and modern facility. The goal, according to officials, is to provide all students with an opportunity to learn skills and trades in an instructional program that will fast-track their technical careers and give them a high school diploma, license, and a contract if they want to work for the Newark Public School system.
The new high school would add to a string of new district schools, including two that launched during the 2020-2021 school year and three others that opened in fall 2021. The district also has revamped the vocational programs at its comprehensive high schools. Students who live in any part of the city will be able to apply to the new high school, León said.
Under the timeline given by the district, the school will welcome its first freshman class in September 2023 with 240 students, a change from its original plan to open with 260 ninth-graders this September.
The first freshman class will be broken up into two cohorts of 120 students split among 16 teachers, according to the district. Enrollment will increase to one grade level each year after that before capping off at 800 students in Sept. 2025. The school is projected to have its first graduating class in June 2026.
During a May 2021 public hearing on the project, Jason Ballard, the district’s former assistant school business administrator, said NPS would agree to a $160 million, 20-year lease with Urban Renewal LLC to turn 155 Jefferson Street into the Newark High School of Architecture & Interior Design. At the end of the 20-year lease, the district could renew or purchase the property. Ballard added that leasing is more affordable than building a new high school, which he said costs an average of $134 million, based on construction plans in other New Jersey cities.
Construction stops after state order
But days after workers at the site saw district engineers scoping the location in August, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development issued stop-work orders to the general contractor, Townhouse Builders Inc., subcontractor Dimension Contractors LLC, and developer of the property, Summit Assets. The department also cited the developer and subcontractor after finding they were not registered to perform public work in New Jersey, said Melanie Weiss, spokesperson for the Department of Labor.
“Our strongest enforcement tool is to stop work immediately on a public construction site when workplace violations are egregious and readily apparent,” said Labor Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo. “Performing public work is a privilege, not a right, and we will not tolerate abuses to workers or the law.”
Albert Nigri, is the developer of the property who heads Manhattan-based Summit Assets and is the managing member of its subsidiary Urban Renewal LLC. Before the state issued a stop-work order on the property, Nigri told NJ.com that the lease with the district was void, adding more uncertainty to the project.
David Johnson, director for the Laborers Eastern Region Organizing Fund (LEROF), the organizing arm of Laborers’ International Union of North America, said the complaint was filed by union organizers to the state’s Department of Labor after workers were not being paid prevailing wages as required by law, prompting the state’s stop-work order. The union has also brought concerns about safety at the work site.
“It’s a building trades school, architecture, and it’s a little ironic that you got workers getting exploited like that on a school that’s going to be designed to educate kids on how to do construction work correctly,” Johnson said. “It’s very, very ironic.”
According to Johnson, prior to filing the complaint, León and the district convened a meeting between the building trades, union laborers, and Nigri last May to discuss the wage issue. Johnson said nothing resulted from that meeting.
The Department of Labor “then showed up and put the stop-work orders,” Johnson said. “We can’t have that kind of exploitation happening on a project like that where it’s clearly covered by prevailing wages.”
The general contractor, subcontractor, and developer have filed appeals to the state and are awaiting their respective hearings, Weiss said.
In the meantime, construction on the property cannot resume until the developer pays workers the wages they are owed and all issues have been resolved with the state.
Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at firstname.lastname@example.org.