User-agent: * Allow: / Trenton Butcher Block: Who Ruined Trenton High?

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Commentary on national and local events from the standpoint of a Trenton city resident and state worker.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Who Ruined Trenton High?

Trenton High was one of the finest high schools in the country when it was first built.  It is still a beautiful building from a distance, if one doesn't look too closely.  It also may become a rallying point that will help destroy Governor Christie;s national reputation as a fair but firm fiscal conservative.

I heard the stories over the years about Trenton High.  As anybody around here knows, the school is supposed to be a real snakepit.  Back in the late 1980s I worked there as a substitute teacher, and at the time I thought the kids were fairly well behaved (at least compared to Junior 5 and Junior 1), and the building was old and a little worn, but still in fairly good repair.  You have to remember at that time, Art Holland was still the mayor, and we only had an appointed school board for a few years. 

Since the early 1980s, Trenton has had an appointed school board.  The board is appointed by the mayor.  Holland pushed for the appointed board because at the time Trenton was racially divided (sounds familiar?) and Holland thought it would be better to have the mayor pick the best people rather than having them sit for election when the public picks candidates solely by their race.

I haven't been in Trenton High since 1990, when I last worked there.  However, I have gotten the chance to go into Dunn Middle School (Junior 4 back in my substitute teaching days) and I got to see how that building has gone downhill.  While I can't say anything about the quality of the instruction or student safety, I can tell you about bricks and mortar, because I been in there a lot to work on elections.  And as recently as last November, when I was last in there, the school hasn't been painted inside since the late 1980s.

In Dunn, the ceiling is peeling in the music room, plaster is bubbling up in the auditorium from the roof leaks, and the rest of the paint is filthy.  The lockers, bathrooms and everything else inside has a left-where-it-was-for-years, unmaintained look.  Nothing done since Mayor Palmer took office.

Back to Trenton High.  Last week, I was watching Channel 6 news and saw a story on Trenton High.  In the video, there was a teacher explaining that the roof leaks all over the place and that teachers use buckets on the floor to catch the water.  When the buckets are filled, they are emptied.  The librarian keeps a mousetrap on her desk, because there are mice running at will in the library.  They frequently climb up on the students.  The librarian says she traps the mice and hopes for the best.

Here is a link to the channel 6 video:

Today, there was a story in the Trentonian about a meeting that was held at the school yesterday between state and local officials.  About 60 students showed up and some of them testified.  The school officials and students said that the roof leaks, half the bathrooms are closed because they are no longer functional, the auditorium is closed because of loose asbestos, and that the drinking water from the fountains is contaminated by lead from the pipes.  Basically, the school is a health hazard, and it provides a poor environment for learning.  At the very least, kids are sent a message by being put into that facility and it is this.  "The building is a piece of garbage, so we must be garbage too.  Suburban kids get decent schools, but the let us sit in this thing.  Why bother trying."

The state offered to replace the high school several years back when Governor Corzine was in office.  The offer was not accepted because city and state officials wanted the building replaced, but several community leaders wanted the old building restored.  Restoration would cost more than replacement, and by the time the decision was made to restore the school, the state was not willing to pay, but would only go for replacement.  No agreement could be reached on that, so the old school remained in use.

Enter Governor Christie.  Last year, the governor cut $850 million from school aid statewide as part of his plan to balance the state budget without renewing the millionaire surtax.  This took money mainly from the low income Abbott districts (which include Trenton).  It also took money from the fund the state uses to subsidize school construction projects.  Because the funding was cut, the state was not willing to subsidize the construction of a new Trenton High.  Christie has also gone on the record saying he wants to pull still more money out of urban public school systems, because he believes they are unfixable and the money should be spent on charter schools and school choice vouchers instead.

At the meeting, community activist Juan Martinez attacked Christie's offer of $24 million for renovations to the school, rather than $150 million to replace the building.  He suggested marching on the statehouse and getting CNN out to the school so the national news service could show the nation what a cheap S.O.B. Christie really is.

You think you know what I'm going to say, but I'm going to fool you.  First, I have no love for Juan Martinez or the Trentonian.  I am sick of Martinez;s racist rants that the South Ward should elect a Latino councilman because it is a majority Latino district and that the city should hire more Latinos for city jobs.  Hell, if he was a white man making the same statements about whites, he would have been run out of town by the media and the powers that be.  But that's besides the point here.  Likewise for the Trentonian ,  The newspaper is rabidly anti-union and ardently pro-Christie.  However it the case of the high school, the paper appears to support getting state aid to solve the problem with either a new or a restored building.

Personally, I prefer restoration over a new building.  Our high school's architecture is unique, and it is built a lot stronger than any new building would be.  I bet that if it was put back together, it would last a lot longer than a new high school.

Now for the hook!  Yeah, Christie has the compassion of Marie Antoinette (Let them eat cake.) when it comes to giving more money to urban school districts.  And yes, once I found something that I agree on with Juan Martinez.  It would be great to get CNN in there and shame the Governor before the nation.  The school is a disgrace.

But, the real question is how did the school get in such deplorable condition.  Remember that the city was getting millions more in state aid before Christie cut it off.  Yet they couldn't find any money to fix it.  It didn't get like that overnight.  It took decades of neglect.

Also, I know Dunn Middle School is also in a state of disrepair.  How many other schools did the city fail to maintain?  What have they done with the money all these years since Palmer took over in 1990.  Tony Mack has been in office less than a year, and he had to deal with the tight budget after Christie cut the city off.  We can't really blame him, at least not yet.   The schools fell apart during the 20 years of Mayor Palmer's rule, and probably weren't fully maintained for some time before that.

I think Palmer and his underlings on the school board let Trenton High go downhill to make their case to the state that the building needed to be replaced.  Let it fall apart and the Great Father in Trenton will buy the city a new school.  It didn't happen.  And now, New Great Father is a stone-cold asshole that doesn't want to part with a dime if it has to come away from the suburban districts that supported him in the election. 

While it may be nice to let the city officials stew in the mess they created, it wouldn't be right.  The kids do need a better school and the only way Trenton could afford one is with the state bearing most of the cost.  Let go governor!  Give the kids a new school.

On the other hand, we need to demand accountability from our city officials.  We at the very least need to get an elected school board.  Give the power to put the schools under new management back to the people.  The school system shouldn't be the mayor's private fiefdom.

(P.S.  Where did the money go?  Probably to the same place the money went that the city was supposed to spend on blacktop for roads.  We now live in pothole city, so I wouldn't be surprised if we have schools that look something like something out of Al Capp's Lil Abner.  Perhaps it went for all night coke and hooker parties at city hall.  Probably not, but it might have been better spent that way.)

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