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Another twist in the SDA course to destroy Trenton High School

December 1, 2009

Late on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend.  That’s when the Trenton Board of Education acknowledged, finally, that the Schools Development Authority (SDA) would be presenting their “response” to the Better Plan for Trenton Central High School today (Monday, Nov. 30) at 4:30 at the BOE offices.  The response is another step in the unfortunate course that SDA has followed of insisting on the staggeringly unsustainable demolition and wholesale replacement of the landmark high school.

The Better Plan was a concept plan intended to show that the building could be modernized.  It was not a set of engineered construction drawings.  The SDA was supposed to review the Better Plan and see if they could make the modernization approach work.  Instead, they chose to dissect the concept as if it was a set of final drawings with the absolute intent of killing any modernization concept.   (e.g. Whether the media center is long and skinny or square and stout seems like an odd argument to have at this phase.)  The meeting, perhaps predictably, was an afterthought.  The Board of Ed had already seen the SDA comments on the Better Plan and voted to move the demolition plan forward.  The citizens have been given no effective voice in decisions that impact their school.

Stay tuned.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Algernon Ward permalink
    December 1, 2009 6:55 pm

    I was at what was called a meeting last night at the Trenton BOE, in reality it was a farce.
    It was a fait d’accompli. They went through their presentation emphasizing the shortcomings of the BHSPT proposal, not a plan to work out any problems they found as promised, although they admitted several times this and that about the BHSPT “could be fixed”. Even before they got started Alex Brown TBOE President said that he was “relieved” because he “got more than he needed” from the process. What he “needed” was a reason to say no. He was anxious to emphasize that the process “was transparent”. Although unbeknownst to us, board had already secretly seen the STV presentation and voted to move the demolition plan forward. Recall that the process that he described at the public meeting would be for the SDA to review the plan and work with us to improve the proposal. When the meeting was nearly over they revealed that they would present their plan on Wednesday to the SDA Board, leaving us no time to address the issues that they raised in their analysis.
    So the entire exercise was to provide them with a fig leaf to say that they had considered BHSPT, but the decision had already been made and the meeting was in fact a waste of our time. I pointed out the miserable siting of the building on the lot and how they could be so confident that their yet to be designed building would be cheaper to maintain. Judging from the faces of the School Board members and Jerry Harris they had not considered just how bad the impact on the surrounding community placing the building in the corner of the lot would be. They struck me as worried now. Rodney Lofton was a surprise. When I suggested that we try to improve Stephen’s design he was all for it, but that is when they revealed that they would present to the SDA board on Wednesday. Now I’m mad. They have used us badly and I intend to hammer them publically for playing back door games. Alex Brown just killed his Mayoral bid, as I told Jennifer, his ass is grass and I’m a lawnmower. What is left is to ask the SDA to instruct them to work with us not against us and reach a middle ground, and insist that the SDA issue a letter of apology to the AIA for the intimidation tactics for trying to help concerned citizens have some effective impact on our school. They are trying to steamroller us now. Our most effective weapon is to make a large public stink, maybe it will sway the SDA, maybe not. We don’t have many other options left. – Algie

  2. Jennifer Leynes permalink
    December 1, 2009 9:08 pm

    I also was at the meeting, and I concur with Algie’s summary and conclusions. Interestingly, some of the items that the SDA found fault with in the BHSPT plans were things found in the original renovation plan (e.g., the media center). Were these original plans unacceptable to the Department of Education? Have the Department’s standards changed so much in less than a decade that what was acceptable circa 2002 is no longer acceptable today?

    The SDA conceded that many of the design flaws of our conceptual plan could be dealt with – but the SDA had no intention of doing so. The truth is, the SDA decided the moment that the bids for the original renovation plans came in over budget that new construction was the only option. They said as much at the time, encouraging the School Board to adopt a design-build approach. The Board was wise enough to reject this first effort to demolish Trenton High, but 5+ years later, they no longer have the courage of that conviction. And who can blame them? The SDA claims that the Board has the final decision, but at the end of the day, the SDA controls both the money and the decision-making process. They were unwilling to submit to a neutral, 3rd party review of the BHSPT proposal. Thus, if the SDA decides that the only project they will fund is renovation, then there is no “choice” at all.

    This is not intended in any way to obviate the School Board of guilt in this situation. It is abundantly clear that the School Board – appointed by the Mayor – is no more than a puppet of the Mayor’s office, doing his bidding without asking questions. Those Board members who have done so, have not served for long. Few if any Board members asked probing questions or demanded answers to the questions raised by the public in recent memory. The “public process” that Mr. Brown is so proud of was a sham – a series of meetings held after decisions were made – not beforehand, when decisions might be shaped by public response. Clearly the School Board and the Mayor are of the opinion that the voices of Trenton’s residents do not deserve to be heard.

    Tomorrow, the SDA Board will almost certainly vote to demolish a city landmark. A group of appointed commissioners who don’t live here, a lame duck governor and SDA officials on their way out of office, will decide Trenton High’s future. The City of Trenton built the high school as an expression of its pride, but the State will tear it down without concern for its students, its residents, its history, its future. I for one will never be convinced that this decision was about anything besides what is easy for the SDA.

  3. martha zapf (Class of '71) permalink
    December 2, 2009 6:11 pm

    Reprehensible. The school is a landmark with historical significance. Why destroy it when it can be brought to 21st century educational standards? It also has architectural beauty that will no doubt be lost in its remaking. I am deeply sad about the idea of this school being torn down.

  4. Stephanie Cherry Farmer permalink*
    December 4, 2009 1:17 pm

    Four “Better High School Plan for Trenton” representatives attended an SDA Board meeting this past Wednesday where the SDA considered voting to approve moving forward with the design of a new school. However, the community group made some surprise progress when, after each representative spoke about the proposal and analysis process and the lack of collaboration afforded by the SDA, the SDA Board instead voted to table any decision on Trenton Central High School one month and agreed to meet with the community representatives, the Trenton Board of Education, and other interested parties together for “better collaboration.” No guarantees, but a delay is better than nothing!

  5. Algernon Ward permalink
    December 4, 2009 11:10 pm

    High school plan on hold to consider preservation
    Friday, December 04, 2009
    Meir Rinde
    TRENTON — Just as it was poised to give final approval to construction of a new Trenton Central High and demolition of the current building, the board of the state Schools Development Authority heard an appeal from preservationists this week and put off the decision for a month.
    The board said they wanted to give the preservationists, who spoke at a Wednesday meeting in favor of saving the iconic, 77-year-old school, a chance to meet again with SDA staff and district administrators so they can be sure their arguments are aired.
    The board members “were concerned that there hadn’t been collaboration, that we felt we hadn’t been heard, and thought it was worth waiting a month to let the public be heard,” said Jennifer Leynes, a member of the preservation group, A Better High School Plan For Trenton. “We were very encouraged by that.”
    The office of SDA CEO Kris Kolluri, who has championed the construction of a brand new school, issued a statement on the postponement.
    “We look forward to continuing our dialogue with the Trenton school district, city officials and members of the community,” the statement said. “We remain committed to the students of Trenton and are hopeful that a school worthy of them will be advanced.”
    The board did give approval to begin design and eventually construction of a new Roebling Elementary School, another much delayed project that had been proposed as a preservation effort, in this case of old steel-industry structures on South Clinton Avenue. In that case, too, after studying a potential renovation, the SDA chose instead to demolish the buildings and put up a new school.
    The high school project had similarly appeared ready to go ahead earlier this week, after the SDA released an analysis of the Better High School plan. The report said the alternate plan did not provide enough classroom space in a modernized building and would exceed the project’s $150 million budget, among other problems.
    Leynes and other members of the group contend that the SDA-commissioned analysis was itself flawed, treating their early, rough proposal, which was produced by volunteer architects in the community, as a design document rather than as an effort to show how preservation might be possible.
    Stephen Doyle, a project manager at a Princeton architectural firm who helped create the plan, said yesterday that the SDA analysis did make some legitimate criticisms, for example in pointing out that the plan did not provide a required auxiliary gymnasium.
    But he also said the analysis was virtually predetermined to find the Better High School plan inadequate.
    For example, in order to calculate how large the proposed classrooms would be, consultants for the SDA enlarged the group’s drawings so they could be compared to other sketches of the high school, but that process made the walls appear too thick and the classrooms impermissibly small.
    “They basically took a PowerPoint presentation and scaled our drawings,” Doyle said. “We had made walls five feet thick so you could see them.”
    Calculated using a more realistic wall thickness, the classrooms would be larger and meet state guidelines, he said.
    “The intent of our drawings was to show this renovation was feasible. It wasn’t a complete set of even design development drawings,” he said.
    The SDA analysis also criticized the Better High School plan for having oddly shaped classrooms, like a 200 foot-long library, but Doyle said that exact room was in a 2004 renovation plan for the high school that received approval from multiple state agencies.
    Leynes said she expected to meet with SDA staff and district officials this month, ahead of a possible vote by the SDA board at its next meeting on Jan. 6.
    The Roebling school project has a $119 million budget. The school will educate 1,183 students in kindergarten through 8th grade and will open in September 2014, according to an SDA planning document.

    Contact Meir Rinde at or (609) 989-5717.

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