Report dings N.J. for no long-range plan on funding repairs at low-income schools
State officials who have been court-ordered to fix crumbling, overcrowded schools in the state’s poorest and most segregated districts have repeatedly failed to detail those costs or secure long-term funding to complete them, according to a report filed this week with the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The report comes 13 months after the Education Law Center filed a motion in Abbott v. Burke, school funding litigation dating back to 1981, to compel Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to comply with prior Abbott rulings ordering the state to fund building fixes in 31 districts scattered around the state from Garfield to Pleasantville.
The districts, formerly known as Abbott districts, are now referred to as SDA districts, after the state Schools Development Authority. The agency oversees school construction in those districts.
In response to the center’s February 2021 motion, the Supreme Court in December 2021 appointed retired Judge Thomas Miller as a “special master” to investigate why the state didn’t provide detailed cost estimates, as requested, for capital projects prioritized in the Schools Development Authority’s 2016 strategic plan. Those projects included emergency work considered a matter of health and safety, such as leaky roofs, crumbling facades, and inadequate ventilation.
Miller found that the state has no ongoing or long-term funding mechanism and instead uses a “pay as you go” strategy by including school capital needs in annual budget appropriations, according to the report he submitted Wednesday. School construction costs in the past have been funded through long-term bond financing.
“That change in philosophy has created uncertainty in the funding process that was not present when the obligation was funded through bond financing,” Miller wrote.
By forcing the Schools Development Authority to seek funding annually, long-range planning for construction projects is difficult, he noted. The state’s recent robust budgets also won’t last forever, making the annual appropriations approach even more concerning, he warned.
“It is likely that not every budget picture will be as favorable as fiscal year 2022 and fiscal year 2023 in order to allow 100% of the obligation to be funded on a pay-as-you-go manner,” Miller wrote.
State officials have not provided detailed cost estimates for major capital projects to alleviate crowding in nine SDA districts and gave a “very general” $5 billion estimate for 50 more aging school facilities that need replacement, according to Miller’s report.
Theresa Luhm is managing director of the Education Law Center. She accused the state of defaulting on its constitutional obligation to provide the safe and adequate physical environments students need to learn, as the state Supreme Court ordered in 1998 and reaffirmed in subsequent rulings.
The center “appreciates Judge Miller’s effort to uncover the cost of meeting the needs of tens of thousands of students in overcrowded, dilapidated, and dangerous school buildings in the SDA districts,” Luhm said in a statement. “It’s time for the Murphy administration and the Legislature to declare how they intend to meet that need, beginning with the FY24 state budget.”
The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.