EDISON – Overcrowding has reached a crisis level in the Edison Township School District.
That is what is known.
However, the motivation behind the recent Board of Education move to charge Board Attorney Ramon Rivera, of Scarinci Hollenbeck LLC, to initiate a lawsuit against the township Zoning Board of Adjustment and other necessary parties for the board’s recent approval of eight multi-family units at Harding Avenue and Oak Tree Road on March 26, has received scrutiny from the township whether it is politically motivated or not.
Township officials have called the board’s move to file a lawsuit “frivolous” and politically motivated ahead of the June Township Council primary.
Councilman Len Sendelsky called the lawsuit a political assault aimed at Zoning Board Attorney Bhavini Shah, now a Democratic Township Council candidate.
“Attorney ethics rules prevent Ms. Shah from commenting about this lawsuit,” he said. “But it is clear this misguided lawsuit was engineered for political reasons. [Board President Jerry Shi and board member Richard Brescher] would rather waste tax dollars on legal fees instead of fixing our schools.”
Sendelsky said the lawsuit shows Brescher and other school board members did not do their homework.
“Case law and judicial ruling prohibit any zoning and planning boards from denying residential applications based on the number of children who could possibly be sent to public schools,” he said.
Mayor Thomas Lankey said the township “cannot comment about a lawsuit that the township has not yet received.”
“Based on what we have heard, this lawsuit borders on frivolous,” he said in a statement. “But we would need to actually see it before we can address any specific issues.”
Councilman Michael Lombardi said as a father of two young daughters, school overcrowding is a big concern to him and their mother.
“We want it resolved as soon as possible for our daughters and for all other Edison families,” he said.
However, Lombardi said it is clear Shi and Brescher are “misusing the Edison Board of Education for political purposes.”
“Threatening a lawsuit will not fix school overcrowding,” he said. “I am confident a judge will see the political motivation behind this lawsuit.”
Lombardi, Sendelsky, Shah and Brescher will vie for the four open council terms in the June primary. In March, Brescher received support from the Edison Democratic Organization (EDO) during a nomination screening for candidates. Incumbents Lombardi and Sendelsky did not receive the support from the EDO. They are running with Shah on the Real Democratic Team line.
Shi said anyone who thinks the overcrowding crisis is frivolous or political should spend some time in the Edison schools.
“The Edison Board of Education passed our resolution by a vote of 8 to 0,” he said. “There is unanimous consensus that we needed to go this route because for years our pleas and concerns have been ignored.”
She added “actions have consequences and the zoning board’s action have placed our children in jeopardy.”
Shi said as of right now he does not know the cost of the lawsuit, stressing it is the board’s “last option to stop or slow down the overdevelopment of our town.”
“If the budgeted legal money is not enough, we have saved so much money from other places by replacing vendors and implementing other cost reduction measures, we should have more than enough to pay for the lawsuit,” he said.
Rivera said the board is “extremely concerned with overcrowding of its student population, which is a legitimate and continuing issue in Edison.”
“At this time, any further comment on the lawsuit would be premature as the Zoning Board resolution for the subject property has not yet been approved,” he said.
When Shi was nominated to become the new president of the Board of Education in 2018, his first order of business was to address student overcrowding in schools and to find a way to implement a full-day kindergarten program, calling all stakeholders to come together to help.
His focus did not relent into 2019 as he began his second year as board president. Shi, along with the board, through a resolution on April 10, initiated the steps to file the lawsuit.
Board member Ralph Errico, at the advice and consent of board counsel, abstained from the vote. He said he was on the zoning board when the matter was heard and voted against the matter.
“The municipal administration and zoning board are engaging in conduct detrimental to our schools and staff,” Shi said. “Many nights, I have heard complaints from taxpayers attending our meetings and different gatherings about overdevelopment and its impact on our schools.”
Shi said for the most part the board has deferred judgment to the municipal government out of respect, but “deference has its limits” and the board has a duty to protect the well-being of students in the district.
“If the Township Zoning Board will not act in a responsible way and base its decision on flawed data and misguided information, then this board must act, must step in and put an end to an unreasonable decision,” he said, noting the zoning board decision places the safety and health of students in jeopardy.
Brescher, chair of the board’s Finance and Facilities committee, said the committee has spent 18 months evaluating funding solutions for the district’s overcrowding issue.
“Make no mistake about it, it really is a crisis at this point,” he said. “If you go to any of our schools, you will see students and teachers struggling due to lack of space. It impacts the work environment for our teachers and impedes our student’s ability to learn.”
Brescher said the overcrowding issue is creating a danger to the health and safety of the children in the district.
“This crisis isn’t only a Board of Education issue, not just a ‘you’ issue or ‘me’ issue, this is an ‘all of us’ issue,” he said.
Brescher said he urges the members of the zoning board to understand the overcrowding crisis impacts music, impacts lunch time, forces students to walk outside to get to classes because of congested hallways, and forces teachers to teach close to 30 students in makeshift classrooms.
The board currently is working with SSP Architects, Bridgewater, on a proposed referendum for September to address the overcrowding crisis.
The district has two high schools, four middle schools, nine elementary schools, one intermediate school, one primary school, and the operation of a preschool program.
The overcrowding needs in the district call for John P. Stevens High School to add 40 classrooms to fill in for the 1,000 seats the school is over capacity. Edison High School needs to add 23 classrooms. Also, the needs call for give or take 40 classrooms to be added to John Adams Middle School, James Madison Intermediate, and John Marshall and Lincoln elementary schools.