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SDA Picks up the Pace of School Construction -- For Some

Administration announces $455 million more funding for "regular operating districts" -- but not Abbotts.

Following up on his winter promise that the Schools Development Authority would ratchet up its workload, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday pledged that more school construction money was on the way and more groundbreakings in the offing.

The reaction to the news was tempered with caution, as it is for almost everything involving the SDA under the Christie administration. Would the reality be anywhere near as rosy as the governor seemed to suggest?

Yesterday's announcement was that an additional $455 million was being made available to schools statewide, part of a grant program for so-called regular operating districts. The money would go to pay for a minimum of 40 percent of school construction costs.

The governor said it was the single biggest infusion yet for these districts.

"In this critical time of rebuilding the Garden State, it is more important than ever for these school projects to move forward with state financial support," Christie said in a press release.

"With this largest single offering of grant funding in history, it is clear that this administration is committed to providing modern and efficient educational facilities for students in all school districts across New Jersey."

The pronouncement follows what have been some small breaks in the logjam of projects in the state’s poorest districts as well. These do not fall under the grant program, but instead are entitled to full funding under the state’s Abbott v. Burke court orders.

These projects have been slow to move, while Christie has worked to overhaul the SDA. But in the past few months, two new school projects have been given go-ahead in Newark. Long-contested emergency repairs are also underway. And ground has been broken for a new school in New Brunswick.

In February, Christie promised that a dozen projects would see significant progress this year. He still has a ways to go to meet the promise, but thus far, officials said the state has advertised for more than $500 million in school construction in the Abbott districts.

Representatives of non-Abbott districts yesterday welcomed the word of more money, although they said districts are still hard-pressed to come up with their required share, since school-bonding referenda have plummeted in the past several years.

“When the school construction program started, every community was getting a minimum of 40 percent coupon from the state, but now every project comes with language on the ballot that the state can’t guarantee the funding,” said Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“It has meant that every district has almost needed to go it alone,” he said. “That’s led to fewer projects proposed, smaller projects proposed, and fewer projects approved.”

At the same time, the Christie administration has also increased the fees that districts must pay to help with the SDA’s own bonds, leading to overall cuts in state money for more than 200 districts under the governor's proposed budget.

The progress of Abbott projects remains a sore point as well, with about 10 projects said to be at some stage in the work, but only a handful actually under construction and dozens more stalled at various preliminary points in the process -- some for as long as a decade. Legal challenges are pending about unfinished emergency projects, as well.

State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) has led the call for the SDA to speed up its work, especially for the Abbotts, and he said yesterday that he’ll take any progress he can get. But he added that the districts still face high hurdles.

“It is certainty a positive thing for the [regular operating districts],” he said. “But frankly, districts are struggling to keep costs within the tax caps we have, and trying to get a bond passed to match these [state] funds is very hard these days. It will be interesting to see if this helps.”

He was more circumspect about the Abbott work, but added he has received assurances that the work will speed up as well.

“I was hoping to see more of these projects -- there is such a dire need,” he said. “But after being stuck in the mud for three years, they are starting to get on track. None of this should have taken that long, but my sense in talking to [the SDA] is they are poised to make more announcements.”

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