Newark, NJ – In an order issued today, the New Jersey Supreme Court has stepped aside to give Governor Murphy and the State Legislature the opportunity to approve additional funding for school construction “in the context of the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget,” expressing its “assumption” the State will comply with the constitutional obligation to improve school facilities in poorer, urban, “SDA districts.”
In November, the plaintiffs in the landmark Abbott v. Burke litigation – all students enrolled in the thirty-one former Abbott districts – filed a motion seeking the Supreme Court’s intervention to remedy the State’s failure to provide additional school construction funds to renovate or rebuild dilapidated, overcrowded and inadequate school buildings in those districts.
The Abbott plaintiffs specifically requested an order directing the Commissioner of Education and the Schools Development Authority (SDA) to: 1) revise and submit to the Legislature a statewide school construction plan identifying priority projects in need of remediation; and 2) promptly seek and secure sufficient funding from the Legislature to complete the projects in the plan.
In response to the plaintiffs’ motion, the Murphy Administration in January 2020 issued the Statewide Strategic Plan containing 24 priority projects for construction. The administration also argued that only the Legislature could authorize additional funding for those projects and should be given the opportunity to do so in the FY21 budget.
The Court accepted the State’s representations, finding that any determination of State non-compliance must be made in the “context of Fiscal Year 2021 Budget which has not been enacted.” The Court further stated that it “declined to proceed on the assumption that [State] respondents will fail to comply with their constitutional obligations to provide a thorough and efficient educational system pursuant to [the New Jersey State Constitution].”
“We are not surprised by the Court’s ruling today,” said David G. Sciarra, Education Law Center Executive Director and attorney for the Abbott Plaintiffs. “This follows a similar approach taken by the Court when faced with the need for more construction funds over a decade ago. By dismissing the motion ‘without prejudice,’ the Court has made clear it expects the Legislature to authorize the additional funds in the now delayed FY21 Budget and, if they fail to do so, we can ask the Court to step back in.”
Providing needed school construction funding in the FY21 Budget gives the Legislature the opportunity to not only meet its constitutional obligation, but also put thousands of New Jersey construction workers, as well as architects, engineers and building suppliers, quickly back to work. Investing in this vital infrastructure will be welcome news given the looming economic crisis and unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding of “shovel ready” projects can serve as an important catalyst to jumpstart the statewide economy when the pandemic subsides.
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications