The NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) is proposing to eliminate the longstanding procedure for “expedited” action on emergency school repairs and to impose additional obstacles that will further delay major construction projects to replace or renovate dilapidated, outmoded schools in poorer urban, or “SDA,” districts.
“These proposed rules are emblematic of the Christie Administration’s refusal to provide urban schoolchildren with safe and adequate school buildings, even when those facilities are a threat to their health and safety and are unfit for learning,” said David G. Sciarra, Education Law Center Executive Director.
On July 5, ELC filed written comments on amendments proposed by the NJDOE to the State’s school facilities regulations. ELC warns that the proposed rules, if adopted, will grind all urban school construction projects to a halt, even those involving emergencies, such as leaking roofs, broken boilers and crumbling building facades.
Under the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act (EFCFA), the State, through the NJDOE and the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA), has full responsibility for financing and carrying out all school facilities projects in SDA districts, including health and safety repairs, new school construction and renovations. EFCFA was enacted by the Legislature in 2002 to implement the NJ Supreme Court’s ruling in the Abbott v. Burke litigation ordering the State to improve and upgrade the deplorable conditions in urban school buildings.
The proposed facilities regulations eliminate an entire category of projects by removing the terms “emergent condition” and “emergent project.” Emergent projects are ones requiring “expedited review” and correction on an “expedited basis.” The proposed rules effectively end any obligation on the part of the NJDOE to expedite the review, approval and correction of building conditions that pose imminent health and safety risks to students and staff.
In other words, the NJDOE would be under no time constraints to review, approve and correct serious conditions that threaten the safety and well-being of thousands of children attending schools in SDA districts, not to mention their teachers and school staff. Even worse, NJDOE is proposing to create new hurdles that would have to be overcome to move any school construction project forward.
Under the proposed rules, SDA districts would be forced to go through a multi-step, unwieldy and convoluted process for all facilities projects. The rules impose no timeline for the NJDOE or SDA to decide whether to move a project forward to construction and completion.
The proposed regulations would require SDA districts to submit an application for approval of a project by the NJDOE, but the application would not be deemed “complete” until the SDA had undertaken all “preconstruction activities,” such as site identification and land acquisition. Districts would have to file a separate application with the SDA for preconstruction activities, but the SDA would not even consider approving the application unless and until the NJDOE had given the proposed project a “priority ranking,” and the SDA had then included it on its statewide strategic plan for constructing projects.
Only after all of these hurdles are completed is the NJDOE obligated to make a final decision on the project. If approved, the project would be sent back to the SDA to decide when to move it to construction and completion. Without time limits on this entire process, it will take months, years and even a decade or more before urgently needed school construction, including emergency repairs, would actually take place.
It should be noted that SDA districts submitted over 700 proposed emergent projects to the DOE and SDA almost two years ago. The vast majority of the 70 approved emergent projects from this group have still not been completed, even after ELC sued NJDOE over the agency’s inexcusable delays. Without a streamlined process and expedited timelines, students will continue to be forced to attend schools that are unsafe, overcrowded and lacking in the instructional space necessary for a 21st-century education.
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