Dozens of union workers gathered outside Newark’s Board of Education offices on Tuesday night looking for answers about the district’s new High School of Architecture & Interior Design project after the state stopped construction earlier this month.
Many waited three hours to speak before the board to express concerns about the district’s lack of public response over problems brewing between union workers and the developer of the future site of the high school. The Department of Labor stopped work on the construction site of the new high school after wage complaints from the union, even as Superintendent Roger León continued to promote the opening of the school, slated for next fall.
During the board’s first in-person meeting since March 2022, Ade’Kamil Kelly, an East Ward resident, asked the board “to provide accountability” and information. Laborers who previously worked at the construction site are Newark residents, some of whom have children enrolled in Newark Public Schools. Some of those workers are out of work while others are waiting for their owed wages.
“It is incumbent on you all to provide some level of accountability,” Kelly said. “I’m speaking on behalf of myself and my nieces and nephews who do go to the district and would benefit from going to this school. A lack of hearing from you only concerns us more.”
Matthew Richards, a member of the Laborers Eastern Region Organizing Fund, the organizing arm of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, also pressed board members to address the issues surrounding the project.
“DOL and OSHA will hold the developer accountable but the school board and administration also have to be held accountable,” Richards said. “There has been no comment or statement issued by the district. So how do we know if the $160 million of taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly?”
Previously, neither León nor district leaders had publicly addressed or acknowledged the legal snags of the project even after the landlord of the property said the deal with the district was void. On Tuesday, León acknowledged some of the confusion by addressing laborer complaints and detailing the district’s plans to move forward with the September 2023 opening of the new high school.
“If it were us being able to say something, obviously, we would have done it,” León said during the meeting. “But it’s not our project right now.”
León also said the district is meeting with labor heads next week who “will help create the curriculum for the future high school” and is working to hire his own trade staff to become teachers to teach those classes.
“Where we are today is that we will continue to work with labor heads and developers to make sure whatever has to happen happens and whatever cleaning up, no pun intended, is done,” León added.
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 district entered into a $160-million, 20-year lease agreement with Urban Renewal LLC to turn 155 Jefferson Street into the Newark High School of Architecture & Interior Design. According to León, the district entered into a lease agreement with the developer because NPS does not have enough funds to purchase a new building.
The state promised Newark 40 new school buildings but delivered less than 10 new schools. León said district leaders have considered proposing a $1 billion bond to Newark voters to fix all the schools in the district but they wants to be “strategic” about when, and if, they move forward with their plans. But ultimately, New Jersey must pay for school construction and renovation in Newark and 30 other high-poverty districts.
“Since they are hiring people that are not my staff, they more likely than not hiring one of my student’s parents and I can’t have them disrespected either,” León added. “There is work underway to make this smoother sailing than what it has been.”
David Johnson, director for the Laborers Eastern Region Organizing Fund, said he left with more questions than answers. He was hoping for more accountability from the district to ensure workers’ rights are being protected.
“I think it boils down to the superintendent having to make a choice,” Johnson said. “Are you going to go with developers who are exploiting Newark residents and not paying prevailing wages, or will the Board of Education take the necessary steps to ensure that the construction development there is held to a high standard that complies with the law?”
According to Johnson, prior to filing the complaint, León and the district convened a meeting between the building trades, union laborers, and the developer last May to discuss the wage issue. But nothing resulted from that meeting, Johnson said, prompting the union’s complaint to the state over the summer.
In June, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration sent a letter reminding local governments and school boards they have a responsibility to ensure payment of prevailing wage, as well as contractor registration, at any construction job involving a public agency. Violations on a construction project could negatively impact the timeliness and cost of public works projects, but during Tuesday’s board meeting, León did not comment on the high school’s proposed opening next September.
In the meantime, construction on the property cannot resume until the developer pays workers the wages they are owed and the state finalizes its investigation into the union’s wage complaint.
“Has it been a mess? Yes. Is that mess our fault? No. Have we been silent?,” León said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “Yes. Did we speak up tonight? You made that happen.”
Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at firstname.lastname@example.org