Press Statement: August 10, 2020
Opposition Grows within RWJ Hospital Complex and Rutgers as Activists Battle Fast-Tracked Plan to Replace Latinx School with New Facility
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Students at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Medical School have joined forces with a community struggle to stop the demolition of a predominantly Latinx school to make way for a new cancer hospital. Advocacy groups, meanwhile, are asking the courts to block the sale of Lincoln Annex School, ahead of a Wednesday meeting of a Middlesex County body that could clear the way for the project to go forward with no further response to the concerns of students, parents, and the community.
Last week, lawyers for parents and New Brunswick residents filed a request to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court for an emergency stay of any sale pending a full hearing of their appeal of a lower court ruling against key provisions of a lawsuit filed in May. That case, Juarez et al. v. New Brunswick Board of Education, asserts numerous violations of state law by city officials, including of a deed restriction that requires the Lincoln Annex site remain a school for 50 years. Parents are represented pro bono in that lawsuit by the national civil rights firm LatinoJustice PRLDEF, along with three other private law firms.
The threat to Lincoln Annex, a middle school located across from the RWJ University Hospital complex in downtown New Brunswick, has galvanized a broad array of forces, led by parents of Lincoln Annex students and including the civil rights advocacy group Movimiento Cosecha, the New Labor workers’ center, the Fifth and Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association, Rutgers University students, and member unions of the Coalition of Rutgers Unions. Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton and actress and best-selling author Diane Guerrero have also spoken out in defense of Lincoln Annex.
Members of this alliance organized a protest and march of hundreds in February and, later, several car caravans to draw attention to the plan to demolish the school and send its 750 students—who are over 90 percent Latinx and over 80 percent classified as “economically disadvantaged”—to a temporary facility in a warehouse until a replacement school is built.
The plans to buy Lincoln Annex from the New Brunswick Board of Education, tear it down, and construct a new cancer pavilion took shape with virtually no public input under a deal between RWJ University Hospital, the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and the scandal-prone local developer DEVCO.
Over the summer, students at the medical school began organizing to raise their concerns that the hospital and university managers who oversee their studies were ignoring the wishes of the community in their rush to add to a new facility to the hospital complex.
“We are not against the building of a new facility for the cancer institute; we are against the narrative that the only site and timeline for the new facility is one that requires the demolition of a school and the displacement of young children into a warehouse,” reads a petition launched by the students that gathered more than 500 signers in a matter of days last week. “It is unfair to demand that the Lincoln Annex School families choose between the lives of cancer patients or the education of their children. Growth in our community’s health care institutions should not depend upon the bulldozing of our community’s educational infrastructure.”
Jessica Andersen, a second-year medical student at RWJ Medical School who helped initiate the organizing, said: “When conversations are being had that affect communities, those communities should be a part of them. No matter how good you think your intentions are, you need to be held accountable by the people you think you’re doing good for. The hospital really doesn’t appear to have any interest in that—for many reasons, most of them economic. I want the sale to be stopped, but at the very least, I want the community to know that they have allies within the medical system.”
Opponents of the sale have called on RWJ and Rutgers to build elsewhere—or, if they want the Lincoln Annex site, to build a new school in the same neighborhood before the old one is torn down. Lincoln Annex opened a mere four years ago—after the New Brunswick school system spent $22 million to purchase and renovate a former Catholic school.
That sale is at the heart of the legal challenge that activists hope will derail the project. The Catholic diocese included a deed restriction that the property must be used “solely for public education purposes” for at least 50 years. Both the diocese and the Board of Education agreed not to enforce that covenant so the school could be sold, but activists believe that parents of Lincoln Annex children ought to be able to insist the school be used for its original purpose. A superior court judge ruled against the suit in May, but the plaintiffs took their case to the appellate level last week.
Time is short, according to Juan González, a veteran investigative journalist and professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers, who has involved his union, Rutgers AAUP-AFT, in the struggle. This Wednesday, he said, the Middlesex County Improvement Association is expected to approve a “redevelopment agreement” that would lift one of the last barriers to the sale going through.
“We are thankful for the support of the medical students and welcome the backing of other medical providers at RWJ/Barnabas,” González said. “We urge city officials and the executives of New Jersey’s largest hospital chain and of Rutgers University to come to their senses.”
Along with the medical students, the union representing 1,500 medical faculty at Rutgers and Rowan Universities, AAUP-BHSNJ, is opposing the sale of Lincoln Annex. “We don’t think that Rutgers has completely listened to the community, and this project should not go through without community support,” said Dr. Catherine Monteleone, a faculty member at the medical school and president of AAUP-BHSNJ.
Roger Martinez, another second-year medical student and co-president of the Latino Medical Student Association at RWJ Medical School, emphasized the importance of medical students taking action. “We’re going to be the doctors,” he said. “These people are going to look to us, they’re going to believe us, they’re going to trust us, they’re going to cry on our shoulders, they’re going to go home and take the medications we prescribe. The fact is that a lot of families in the New Brunswick community don’t have that trust with Robert Wood Johnson Medical School because of how they’ve acted.”
“I want to be able to help give the community a voice,” Martinez said, “because right now, that voice isn’t being heard, and it needs to be.”
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