Students in dilapidated and inadequate school buildings commenced legal action today, asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to direct the Commissioner of Education (Commissioner) and the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA) to revise the SDA’s construction plan for priority facilities projects and secure additional funding for those projects from the Legislature.
The court motion filed in the landmark Abbott v. Burke lawsuit follows the continuing refusal of the Commissioner and the SDA to revise the outdated 2011 school construction plan for urban or “SDA districts.” The Education Facilities Construction and Financing Act, the 2000 law implementing the Supreme Court’s mandate for State funding of needed facilities projects, requires the plan be revised every five years.
Over the last several years, the SDA has repeatedly notified the Legislature that the agency requires additional funding for critically needed facilities projects.In June, a facilities needs assessment of the SDA districts released by the Commissioner identified a “magnitude” of “need,” including fifteen districts lacking the necessary capacity to adequately deliver the core curriculum content standards in multiple grade groups. At least 23 projects in the Commissioner’s 2019 needs assessment were on the 2011 strategic plan, meaning they have been considered “priority” projects for nearly a decade but cannot move to construction because of a lack of funding.
Under a 1998 Supreme Court order, the State is under a continuous obligation to remediate unsafe, overcrowded and inadequate school buildings to ensure students in New Jersey’s high need urban districts are provided a constitutional “thorough and efficient” education. The Court’s order also directs the State to fully fund the cost of facilities improvements as determined by the Commissioner and the SDA.
Today’s Abbott court filing comes in the wake of repeated efforts by Education Law Center, attorneys on behalf of urban school children, to get voluntary cooperation from Governor Phil Murphy’s administration to revise the statewide construction plan and then work with the Legislature to secure the funds for the revised plan. Despite those efforts, the Murphy Administration has failed to take these required steps.
“In our motion filed today, we recognize that New Jersey has made real and steady progress rebuilding public school infrastructure in communities serving our state’s most at-risk students,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and lead counsel in the Abbott case. “Yet, as the Commissioner and the SDA both acknowledge, a substantial number of outmoded and unsuitable buildings need repair, renovation or replacement.”
“As in the past, we have no alternative but to seek the Supreme Court’s intervention to direct prompt action by State officials to prevent the school construction program from grinding to a complete standstill,” Mr. Sciarra added.
The motion specifically asks the Supreme Court to order the Commissioner and the SDA to: 1) revise and submit to the Legislature the statewide school construction plan of priority projects in SDA districts within 30 days, and 2) promptly seek and secure the school construction funding necessary to undertake and complete the projects in the plan.
View the Commissioner’s 2019 list of priority facilities projects in 29 SDA districts here.
Read all of the documents filed with the Supreme Court here.
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