November 2, 2015
In a letter sent last week, Education Law Center is calling on Attorney General John Hoffman, Commissioner of Education David Hespe, and the CEO of the Schools Development Authority (SDA) Charles McKenna to seek additional school construction bonding authority from the Legislature to fulfill the State’s constitutional obligation to complete school facilities projects in poorer urban SDA districts, as mandated by the landmark Abbott v. Burke rulings.
According to budget documents issued by the SDA, nearly all of the current funding has been spent or committed, leaving almost no funds to address additional needed projects.
New Jersey’s school construction program was launched in 2000 to comply with a 1998 NJ Supreme Court order to address deplorable, unsafe and overcrowded conditions in school buildings, many of which are over 100 years old and educationally inadequate, in poorer urban communities.
Under the Abbott rulings, public school students in the SDA districts are constitutionally entitled to attend school in facilities that are safe, not overcrowded and educationally adequate. In 1998 (Abbott V), 2000 (Abbott VII) and 2005 (Abbott XIV), the Supreme Court reaffirmed the State’s responsibility to fully fund all of the facilities improvements in the state’s low wealth, high poverty urban districts to address decades of disrepair and neglect.
In establishing the school construction program, the Legislature also provided funding, in the form of grants, to all other school districts, referred to as “Regular Operating Districts” (RODs). ELC strongly urges the Legislature to provide additional funds not only to rebuild urban schools, but also to remediate outdated and dilapidated schools elsewhere, especially in RODs serving growing numbers of poor students and students with special needs.
The Legislature approved the last round of funding, totaling $3.9 billion, for the school construction program in 2008. At that time, $2.9 billion of bonding authority was allocated to SDA districts and $1 billion to RODs.
“While numerous major projects and emergent repairs were completed with the 2008 funding round, that funding is now depleted,” said ELC Attorney Theresa Luhm. “In 2011, the SDA issued a strategic plan with a list of 110 major capital projects in the SDA districts that it said comprised the ‘highest priority needs of the state,’ but only 40 of those projects have been advanced. In addition, the SDA districts recently completed amendments to their Long-Range Facilities Plans, identifying hundreds of additional projects that the state must prioritize and address.”
Given the urgent need, ELC is calling on the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Education and the SDA CEO to quickly move the legislative process forward. In addition to providing desperately needed new and renovated school facilities to improve public education, the program will also have a significant positive impact on the state’s economy. A 2008 study conducted by researchers at the Rutgers Center for Urban Policy Research and the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development shows that $1 billion spent on school construction would generate 2,900 new full-time jobs, each lasting three years; almost $500,000,000 in individual income; $13,421,000 in state taxes; and $610,929,000 in gross state product.
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