The New Brunswick Board of Education is holding an election on April 21. Three candidates, Jerry Mercado, Reginald “Reggie” Parker and Linda “Lindy” Stork, are Rutgers University alumni and running for the Board on a “Students First” platform and advocating for the preservation of the Lincoln Annex School.
Mercado said he has experience serving in similar public service roles, such as the commissioner of the New Brunswick Housing Authority as well as a member of the New Brunswick Zoning Board, among other positions around New Jersey. He previously ran for a Board of Education position in 2013 and a City Council position in 2006.
Mercado also currently has a daughter in New Brunswick High School, which he said shows his vested interest in the school system.
Parker said he moved to New Brunswick two years ago and became heavily involved in the community. He is a member of the Fifth and Sixth Ward Association and found out at a meeting in September that the Lincoln Annex School could potentially be sold to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital to build the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, he said.
Stork taught bilingual kindergarten for approximately 30 years in New Brunswick and her children also attended the city’s public schools.
“Between these two roles of educator and parent, I have a lot of experience with the New Brunswick education system, which gives me an informed perspective to contribute to the decision-making process,” Stork said.
The three candidates decided to run, in part, due to the Lincoln Annex School situation. Mercado said cancer research is an important cause, but the students should not be sacrificed for the sake of the Institute.
“There was a lot of investment in (the Lincoln Annex) school, so my tax dollars went to renovate it when it got taken over from when it used to be Saint Peter’s High School,” Mercado said. “They spent a considerable amount, I think it was like $22 million, to purchase it and then to refurbish it … we haven’t really gotten our investment back with just three and a half years of spending that amount of money.”
Mercado said he supports updating facilities for students, but he said he did not support the plan to build the replacement school in an industrial site with toxic chemicals. He is also against housing students at the Warehouse School in the interim. He said the Lincoln Annex School is performing well and students should not be disrupted.
Parker said when New Brunswick officials built A. Chester Redshaw Elementary School, it took approximately nine years. He does not think the city will prioritize building another school in a timely manner.
“I don’t think that they have the proper plan in place to sell the school. I think they’re going to be displacing kids for an extended amount of time. I don’t think that this is something that could get done quickly at all,” Parker said.
Stork said she was disappointed that the members of the Board of Education would not commit to preserving the school.
“Putting students first means considering their needs above all else, and for that reason I would oppose the sale of the school,” Stork said.
The Daily Targum previously reported that parents of Lincoln Annex School students said they were lied to about the sale of the school, with the Board of Education repeatedly dismissing the idea as a rumor.
Both Mercado and Parker also said the Board of Education has not been transparent about the situation regarding the school. At most Board of Education meetings, Mercado said parents can sign up to talk at the meeting, but at the most recent meeting, the Board changed the rules and required all speakers to sign up beforehand, preventing many attendees from voicing their concerns.
“I was planning on speaking on specifically the school and was not able to because (myself and others) had come after the seven o’clock timeframe,” Mercado said.
Parker said one of his goals is to encourage community participation in Board of Education meetings. He said he wants to make meetings accessible through broadcasting them and possibly finding a more central location.
“I think I would be a huge advocate for dialogue with the community because, as a resident, as a taxpayer, you know, I’d like to have my voice heard,” Parker said. “And I think that that would be the first place to start, to keep open that dialogue.”
Stork said it is important to allow community members to sign up to speak at each meeting based on her own experiences.
“I have often in the past gotten up to comment or ask a question about something that came up during the meeting, which I would not have known of, and so would not have signed up for, in advance,” Stork said. “This is also part of putting students first, facilitating the participation of their parents and other concerned community members in the decision-making process and being forthright about what is under consideration.”
The candidates’ platform also includes more accountability for students with special needs, increasing the number of substitutes available and improving the graduation rate, which Parker said is at approximately 75 percent.
“One in 4 students in the New Brunswick school system is not graduating from these schools — that definitely needs to improve,” Parker said.
Some potential solutions include collaborating with community partners such as the University, exploring work-study programs and increasing the number of counselors and social workers, Parker said.
The candidates also said they want to work closely with the community. Mercado said he is in the process of setting up a meeting between the Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex School and Mayor James M. Cahill to discuss the sale of the school before the next Board of Education meeting.
Parker also said there will be a “Meet the Candidates” event at the George Street Co-op on Feb. 29.
“I like to let people in the community know that we are accessible and that we are planning community events like this throughout our campaign,” Parker said. “And this is the first of hopefully many.”