In testimony before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, Education Law Center Executive Director David Sciarra called on the State Legislature to prepare for authorizing an increase in funding for New Jersey’s school construction program.
“It’s now clear that the funds for school construction projects in urban districts are nearly exhausted and there are no funds left for projects in the rest of the state,” Mr. Sciarra said. “State lawmakers must start work now on legislation to replenish the school construction fund to support urgently needed projects across the Garden State.”
The NJ school construction program was put in place to comply with a 1998 order of the State Supreme Court in the landmark Abbott v. Burke education equity litigation. Under a law enacted in 2000, the State finances 100% of all school construction projects in 31 urban or “SDA districts,” including emergent repairs and capital maintenance on school buildings. The State also provides 40% or more of the share of projects in all other districts – known as “Regular Operating Districts” or “ROD districts” – in the form of grants to match locally raised funds.
NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA) Director Charles McKenna told the Joint Committee that all funding for grants for the state share of projects in ROD districts has been allocated and there is no funding for new projects. The SDA has made conflicting public statements about the funding for urban SDA districts, at first stating that there were no funds left, then reversing itself. The SDA most recently said that $400 million remains available for SDA district projects.
In his testimony, Mr. Sciarra asked the Joint Committee to formally request the SDA to provide a full and complete accounting of the status of the school construction fund, both committed funds and the remaining balance. Specifically, the SDA should provide lawmakers with the following information:
? For SDA districts, provide a detailed audit of how the SDA has spent and allocated the $2.9 billion in school construction funds authorized by the Legislature in 2008. This should include a listing of all projects completed, under construction or in the planning or pre-planning stages, along with the amounts expended or set aside for each project.
? For SDA districts, provide a new statewide capital plan and construction schedule by using the NJ Department of Education’s 2013 needs assessment and priority ranking to identify the urgently needed projects and the funding increase necessary to undertake and complete the projects.
? For ROD districts, provide the expenditures for the $1 billion allocated by the Legislature in 2008, identifying the types of projects by district factor grouping (wealth and income).
? Provide a detailed accounting of the SDA’s expenditures on administrative overhead to operate the program over the last five years.
“Based on this detailed accounting, the Legislature can begin work on a new package of additional funding and necessary reforms,” Mr. Sciarra said. “This will allow the Legislature to replenish the school construction fund to keep the backlog of needed projects moving forward, and enact measures to ensure the program is operated in the most effective and efficient manner possible.”
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