Almost six months since submitting lists of urgently needed facilities repair requests, urban school districts are still waiting for the NJ Department of Education (DOE) to make decisions on which school building repairs will be addressed and when they will be completed by the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA).
Education Law Center and the Healthy Schools Now coalition of the NJ Work Environment Council are calling on both State agencies to immediately notify districts of project approvals and a timeframe for undertaking and completing the building repairs.
In July 2016, the DOE and the SDA asked those urban districts classified as “SDA districts” under NJ’s state school construction program to submit requests for emergency health and safety repair projects under an initiative called the “Potential Emergent Projects Program” (PEPP). In response, the districts submitted extensive lists of needed repairs and hazardous conditions for State review.
An emergent project is a capital project necessary to address a building condition that causes imminent peril to the health and safety of students and staff and that must be alleviated on an expedited basis. The SDA districts are covered by a 1998 NJ Supreme Court order requiring the State to fully fund all capital projects and improvements to ensure school buildings are safe, not overcrowded and educationally adequate.
Twenty-three of the 31 SDA districts submitted a total of 429 project applications under the 2016 PEP program. The majority of applications came, not surprisingly, from some of the larger school districts, including Newark (156), Paterson (77), Trenton (34) and Elizabeth (26).
The requests included significant problems such as collapsed ceilings and building facades, leaking roofs, malfunctioning boilers, and broken fire alarm systems. A few examples include:
- An Asbury Park elementary school with three boilers original to the school, which was built in 1912. The boilers were originally designed for coal, and the controls for the gas fired burners only run manually, and the control valves no longer function.
- A school in Elizabeth, where water has infiltrated the roof structure causing deterioration of the roof components, adjacent walls and spaces below. There is buckling, ridging, oxidation and failing caulk.
- An elementary school in New Brunswick with an outdated electrical system forcing the school to cut back to half days at the beginning and end of the school year because the temperature on the third floor can reach into the 90s.
- A Newark elementary school with radiators and steam distribution piping that is over 100 years old and failing. The heating and ventilation units serving the auditorium and gymnasium and other spaces are not working properly, and the exhaust system is also malfunctioning.
“These emergency conditions impact the health, safety and well-being of thousands of students, teachers and other staff every day,” said Jerell Blakeley, Campaign Organizer of the Healthy Schools Now coalition. “Governor Christie has approved more than a quarter of a billion dollars to address facility concerns at the State House while public school students and employees have had to endure horrible conditions that shock the conscience. The State has had more than enough time to review repair applications. The time to act is now. ”
Under state law, the DOE is required to promptly inspect the buildings and certify if an emergent condition exists. The agency must then review and approve the repair project on an “expedited basis.” Once the DOE approves the project, the SDA is obligated to do the repair work as quickly as possible.
Although the district applications were due in August, and preliminary determinations should have been made in September, the DOE has yet to issue any decisions, nor has the agency provided a timeline for when these unsafe and dangerous conditions will be addressed.
“The State is obligated by law to promptly address hazardous school conditions,” said ELC attorney Theresa Luhm. “When the DOE and the SDA ran this same type of emergent projects identification program in 2011, and then failed to act on the applications, a court found they were in violation of the law, and the Commissioner of Education, who reviewed the decision, agreed.”
Policy and Outreach Director, ELC
973-624-1815, x 24
Campaign Organizer, Health Schools Now Coalition
Work Environment Council of NJ
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications