Students enrolled in unsafe and dilapidated school buildings in New Jersey’s poor urban districts are again asking the State Supreme Court to step in and order the Commissioner of Education and the Schools Development Authority (SDA) to secure additional school construction funding from the Legislature by June 30, 2021.
The request comes in a motion filed by the plaintiff students in the landmark Abbott v. Burke school funding litigation. The motion seeks to compel Governor Phil Murphy’s administration to comply with prior Abbott rulings mandating state funding of all needed building improvements in 31 of New Jersey’s most intensely segregated school districts. Education Law Center represents the Abbott students.
Last April, the Supreme Court dismissed a similar motion by the Abbott students as “premature.” The Court anticipated that Governor Murphy and the Legislature would authorize additional school construction funding in the “context of the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget,” which had yet to be enacted.
Despite the Court’s expectation of action, the FY21 State Budget did not contain any increase in construction funding. Governor Murphy did not propose additional funding for 24 school construction projects prioritized by the SDA in 2019, or for emergent health and safety projects, including ventilation, heating and cooling, and classroom overcrowding, to ensure buildings can safely reopen in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Governor and legislative leaders have once again ignored their legal obligations to students stuck in obsolete, crumbling and unsafe school buildings”, said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and lead counsel in the Abbott case. “Their continuing inaction to replenish funding for urgently needed projects leaves us no alternative but to seek the Supreme Court’s intervention to prevent the State’s school construction program from grinding to a complete standstill.”
“The Governor and the Legislature can’t shirk their constitutional duty to the tens of thousands of students, many of whom are students of color in racially segregated communities,” said Richard T. Smith NAACP New Jersey State Conference President. “We expect the Governor and our legislative leaders to approve additional construction funding in the upcoming budget. Anything less is totally unacceptable!”
Although the State has made progress renovating and rebuilding public school buildings in communities across New Jersey, a Facilities Needs Assessment by the Department of Education and reports issued by the SDA make it clear that there remains significant unmet need in the SDA districts. The SDA has spent or committed nearly all of the $2.9 billion in financing authorized by the Legislature in 2008, and the 11 remaining major capital projects on the agency’s docket will be completed by 2025.
“The public schools in Paterson have not been able to reopen this entire school year, and all of our students continue to experience remote learning,” said Rosie Grant, Executive Director of the Paterson Education Fund. “Our schools are old, outmoded and crowded. We call on the Governor and Legislature to make additional funding available so the SDA can fulfill its obligation to Paterson and other districts in great need.”
“The Healthy Schools Now coalition, made up of over 65 organizations, has worked for years to ensure additional funding for the SDA,” said Heather Sorge, Healthy Schools Now Coordinator. “Now, with the perfect storm of the SDA running out of money for urgently needed projects and a public health emergency requiring a safe and healthy school environment, we intend to work harder than ever to get that funding in place.”
Under a 1998 Abbott court order, the State is under a continuous obligation to remediate unsafe and overcrowded schools to ensure students in New Jersey’s 31, high need, urban SDA districts (formally known as Abbott districts) are provided a constitutionally mandated education. The Court order also directs the State to fully fund the cost of facilities improvements as determined by the Commissioner of Education and the SDA.
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