Newark NJ — December 21, 2010

For close to a year, the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA) has stopped all work replacing or renovating the worst school buildings in the state, in direct defiance of legislation enacted in 2008 authorizing funding for those projects, and even though the agency spent $50 million in 2010 on salaries and overhead for over 300 employees.

Now the SDA is getting ready to defy the Legislature — again.

The issue involves a 2007 amendment to the Education Facilities Financing and Construction Act (EFCFA) authorizing urban school districts — called SDA districts — to oversee all aspects of school construction projects, just as all other districts in the state do. The Legislature passed the law to give these districts a direct stake in the planning, design and construction of their own school buildings, and to cut down on the expensive, top heavy SDA bureaucracy in Trenton.

In proposed rules to implement the new law, the SDA wants to limit the work that can be done by these districts to site acquisition and actual construction. The rules would not allow the districts to carry out the entire project, including the important planning and design work.

In comments filed on the rule proposals, Education Law Center (ELC) points out that legislators made clear they want local districts to be able to take on the entire project — from planning and design through construction to completion. The comments warned that if the SDA adopts the rules as proposed, ELC will have no alternative but to file a second lawsuit to enforce compliance with the law.

ELC had to file suit in August to force the SDA and the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) to prepare and publish these rules, as mandated by the Legislature. For two years, both agencies simply ignored a legislative directive that the rules be adopted by an August 2008 statutory deadline.

ELC also raises other legal issues and practical problems in comments on the SDA rule proposal and comments on rules proposed by the NJDOE. These include:

  • The SDA proposal to review districts’ overall qualifications to manage facilities projects is unnecessary and duplicative of what NJDOE is already required to do;
  • The SDA is proposing to offer training and technical assistance to districts, but only after the district has gone through the entire process and has had its application to manage a facilities project rejected. Neither the SDA nor NJDOE are proposing to provide coordinated training and assistance to prepare districts to qualify in advance of an application, or to address any deficiencies identified in the NJDOE application process;
  • The NJDOE is proposing that districts meet high benchmarks in every area of district monitoring, even on issues that do not relate to facilities, making it almost impossible for many districts to qualify to take on school construction;

“By creating onerous and arbitrary standards, and a burdensome process, these agencies are doing everything possible to discourage districts from even applying for the opportunity to do their own projects,” said Elizabeth Athos, ELC Senior Attorney.

“The Legislature understood that school construction projects managed by districts are more efficient, more cost effective and more timely,” Athos added. “It is in the State’s and schoolchildren’s best interest for SDA to follow this legislative directive.”

In a related matter, ELC has sent a letter to SDA CEO Marc Larkins demanding that the agency begin work on the 50 projects affected by Governor Christie’s decision to shut down all school construction over the last year. The letter makes clear that the State remains under court order to complete these projects, and that, if work does not commence promptly, ELC will have no alternative but to pursue appropriate legal action to provide relief for thousands of schoolchildren now trapped in dangerous, crumbling, and outmoded school buildings across the state.

Education Law Center Press Contact:
Sharion Krengel
Policy & Outreach Coordinator
voice: 973 624-1815 x24

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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240