The ongoing failure of the NJ Department of Education (DOE) to put in place up-to-date, district-wide school facilities plans for the state’s poorest school districts has prompted a lawsuit seeking compliance with the law, Education Law Center announced today.
ELC filed the case after the DOE ignored a formal request in November 2013 to take immediate steps to require the 31 “SDA districts” to revise and submit their facilities plans – called “Long Range Facilities Plans” (LRFP) – for DOE review and approval.
Under orders issued by the NJ Supreme Court in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case, the state school facilities and construction law, and the DOE’s own regulations, the Department must make certain that district’s LRFPs are updated at least every five years to reflect changing conditions.
All SDA districts’ LRFPs were last approved by the DOE nearly seven years ago, some even before that, and many were prepared by the districts nine years ago.
“The district’s LRFPs are seriously out of date, rendering them useless for assessing facilities conditions and needs and for making decisions about whether to repair, renovate, replace or close school buildings,” said Elizabeth Athos, ELC Senior Attorney. “The Supreme Court made clear that up-to-date plans are essential for the State to make sound decisions about school construction.”
Updated LRFPs, with current enrollment data, building capacities and utilization, and health and safety conditions are the linchpin for making decisions related to the repair, construction, renovation and closing of existing public schools, and for the DOE to assess statewide needs and establish educational priority rankings for all school facilities projects in SDA districts. The SDA, the state’s construction agency, is required to use the DOE statewide assessments and project priority rankings to establish a “statewide strategic plan” for use in setting timetables for school construction projects.
The ELC lawsuit asks for an order for the DOE to: 1) require SDA districts to promptly submit their revised plans and review and approve the LRFPs within 90 days of submission; 2) issue a new statewide needs assessment based on the updated plans; and 3) establish a new statewide priority ranking for school facilities projects – emergent, capital maintenance, and major renovations and new schools – in SDA districts.
“What’s so disheartening is that Commissioner Christopher Cerf and Attorney General John Hoffman simply ignored our warnings months ago about this egregious violation of the Abbott court orders and state statute and regulations,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “We cannot stand by while these State officials disregard their responsibility to the thousands of children attending school everyday in hazardous and inadequate school buildings.”
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