Roselle officials amend lease for school and recreation complex amid lawsuit

Photo by Rebecca Panico
Members of the Roselle Borough Council listen to residents during the public comments portion of a special meeting Monday, Nov. 20.

ROSELLE, NJ — The Roselle school board and council held simultaneous yet separate meetings to resolve a sublease issue involving a proposed $59 million school and recreation project in the borough.

The council held a special emergency meeting on Nov. 20, while the school board held its own regularly scheduled meeting at Abraham Clark High School. Resolutions amending the lease for the project, known as the Mind and Body Complex, were approved by both agencies, officials said.

The moves were the latest change in the lease between the school board and borough, which is the subject of a lawsuit initiated by Anthony Esposito, a former school board member.

The lawsuit is an attempt to halt the project. Residents who filled the meeting room in borough hall asked council members to release more information about the project’s cost to taxpayers.

“Simultaneously tonight there is a board of education meeting and they to are doing a second amendment to an expired lease,” Esposito said during the meeting, referring to the premise of the allegations in his suit. “So there’s something wrong here.”

In August, Esposito filed his civil complaint in state Superior Court against the borough, school board, county and other agencies. On Nov. 21, a judge postponed hearing a motion to dismiss the complaint to around Dec. 10, a lawyer for Esposito said.

Roselle Mayor Christine Dansereau refused to sign the amendment, which the borough clerk said passed 5-0 at the council meeting. Councilman Yves Aubourg was not present. The clerk said council President Kim Shaw signed the borough’s amendment after it was approved.

School board attorney Allan Roth said the school’s amendment passed 8-1, with Archange Antoine voting against it.
The project will be financed through bonds up to $59 million, which are slated to be issued by the Union County Improvement Authority. The school board is contracted to lease the land to the borough, which in turn agreed to sublease to the UCIA on Feb. 15, according to an August school board resolution.

But a lawyer for Esposito who attended that August school board meeting reminded members that the original lease stated the borough could not sublet the property on Chandler Avenue, where the project is planned to be built.
The amendments passed Nov. 20 by the council and school board both deal with the subletting stipulation.

Philip George, the borough’s outside counsel from the Eric M. Bernstein & Associates law firm, said there was an “ambiguity” about the secondary lease.

“The amendment is solely to provide for the ability to lease back to the (UCIA),” George said at the meeting when asked about it by a resident during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Likewise, the school’s amendment was needed to “clarify any ambiguity” in the land lease to “provide for the sublease with the premises by the borough and the (UCIA) in order to undertake and complete the project.”

The project has its supporters. Councilman-at-Large Reginald Atkins said that “fear is very much a factor” when it comes to understanding the project’s cost. He said the Mind and Body project would help keep kids off the streets, too.

“They deserve to see the best,” he said. “They deserve to have the best, and while I’m on the dais, I’m going to make sure they get the best.”

Meanwhile, Denise Wilkerson and Cynthia Johnson, who ran unopposed in the recent council elections in November, were elected to the six-member board. The two have been outspoken during council and county freeholder meetings about the management of the project.

Their votes, while not enough to turn the tides on the project, will at least give residents who are concerned about the cost of the project a voice on the council come January.

“Show me the numbers — and show me the accurate numbers — of actually how much it’s going to cost us,” Wilkerson said after the special council meeting. “That’s my concern in the beginning. That’s going to be my concern at the end. If you can’t tell me … how much this is going to cost our residents, I’m not supporting it.”

School board member Antoine ran and won on a ticket with two newcomers, Keyanna Lovett and Jonathan Davis. The team has not come out for or against the project, but would want to take a step back to evaluate its impact on taxpayers first, Lovett said.
“My team and I are vehemently opposed to the way the Roselle Mind and Body project is being implemented,” Lovett said in a Nov. 27 phone interview. She later added that, “It would be beneficial for the entire community at large if we took a step back and evaluate and explore other avenues.”

One preliminary UCIA analysis said taxes could increase by nearly $500 for the project, when not considering offsets brought in from new developments. Another projection from the school board’s auditor and UCIA predicted an annual incremental increase that would reach an additional $190.21 by 2047.