ELC Urges NJ Legislators to Fund School Construction Program to Meet Extreme Need

At the request of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, Education Law Center presented testimony on April 26 during a hearing on the status of New Jersey’s school construction program. ELC Senior Attorney Elizabeth Athos presented the organization’s remarks.

The Committee, co-chaired by Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Senator Joseph Cryan, also received testimony from Schools Development Authority (SDA) CEO Manuel Da Silva.

In his testimony, Mr. Da Silva described current construction needs in the poor urban, or SDA, districts, explaining that there is an urgent requirement of an additional 9,000 seats to address overcrowding and to “get students out of trailers and into classrooms.”

He also stated that there are more than 50 buildings that are over one hundred years old that need to be replaced or substantially renovated to meet 21st-century learning standards. He informed the committee that the SDA does not have the funding necessary to take on any of these much-needed capital construction projects and raised the need for funding for land acquisition.

Ms. Athos told the committee that “years of inadequate support for construction and maintenance have left schools in our most vulnerable and racially segregated communities in dire need of repair and replacement.”

She underscored the State’s legal obligation to provide school construction funding for the 31 SDA school districts under the Abbott v. Burke Supreme Court mandates. She also informed the committee that the SDA has estimated it will cost, at minimum, an additional $7 billion to address current construction needs. She urged Legislators to include additional funding for the school construction program in the FY25 State Budget or provide funding through the Debt Defeasance and Prevention Fund or a bond authorization.

She also recommended that the Legislature provide $30 million to the SDA to complete a Building Conditions and Assessment (BCAS) survey, first proposed by the agency in 2019. The BCAS would provide uniform, comprehensive information about the number and types of capital maintenance and emergent project needs in the SDA districts. She noted that Mr. Da Silva is on record in the Abbott litigation affirming that completion of the BCAS will enable the agency to better track and prioritize projects as well as save taxpayer dollars.

Ms. Athos also advised the committee to exercise its oversight authority to ensure the Department of Education (DOE) complies with the requirements mandated under the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act to complete an Educational Facilities Needs Assessment every five years and ensure that all districts have updated Long-Range Facilities Plans (LFRP). The report and LFRPs provide essential data used by the SDA and the DOE to prioritize capital construction projects.

View the full Joint Committee on the Public Schools hearing here.

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