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Judge Agrees School Repair Projects Taking Too Long

Ruling adds weight to complaints about Christie administration’s delays in court-ordered construction.

An administrative law judge has found that the Christie administration has been too slow in moving on so-called emergent repairs of school buildings in its poorest districts.

The ruling adds some legal heft -- and pressure -- to ongoing criticism over the state’s slow pace of court-ordered school construction.

Administrative Law Judge Ellen Bass wrote in a Dec. 14 opinion that the state Department of Education had failed to move expeditiously on nearly 70 requests for emergent repairs in nearly 30 of its poorest cities, with problems ranging from leaky roofs to crumbling masonry to broken boilers.

Acting on a complaint from advocates for the cities’ schoolchildren, Bass said the slow pace was a violation of the state’s constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” education.

That’s familiar language in this state, where the constitutional clause has been at the center of a long-running school equity battle, Abbott v. Burke. That landmark decision included requirements the state provide sufficient school facilities for its poorest schoolchildren, both in new construction and repairs.

The decision by Bass now goes to state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to accept, reject or modify. That decision can be appealed to state appellate court.

The latest challenge came from the Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation, and focused specifically on the approval process for emergent repair projects that it claimed had all but stalled.

Similar complaints have arisen about new construction, as well, as overseen by the separate Schools Development Authority, but that was not the subject of this complaint.

Still, SDA manages the final phases and funding of the emergent projects, as well, so it did not escape unscathed in the decision.

But much of the focus was on the state Department of Education, which must approve the projects as being “emergent” and, therefore, needing immediate action.

Bass did not agree with all of ELC’s complaint. She said the state education department, in its initial review of emergent projects, had adequately notified and explained its decisions in paring the project list, which numbered about 700 requests in June 2011.

But Bass found the decisions on the projects took 10 months to finish and said little, if any, of the work has yet been completed – even though all agreed they were emergency repairs. “Such a painfully slow process, on its face, defies logic,” she wrote.

“The statute’s plain language mandates a speedy and efficient project approval process, with the goal of ensuring the children in the (Abbott) districts receive their education in appropriate facilities, as soon as possible,” Bass added in her ruling.

She also rejected the department’s arguments that the delays were due, in part, to the SDA and its own approval process.

“The (department’s) approach passes the proverbial buck to another agency,” she wrote. “But the (law) directs the DoE, not another agency, to take action to repair our school facilities.”

A department spokeswoman did not comment on the decision yesterday, saying it was under review.

But the decision may have already had one of its intended consequence in at least speeding some of the process along. The SDA issued an updated list yesterday that categorized all of the projects in various stages of preparation or completion, with more than half now delegated to the local districts to manage. Two are currently in construction, and another 12 are in the bidding process, it said.

Even so, Bass said all projects need to be moving toward completion. If Cerf does not rule, Bass’s order would stand, requiring the education department to issue within 30 days the pre-construction reports necessary for public bidding for each approved project.

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