Although New Jersey’s colleges and universities are enjoying a succession of groundbreakings on major new facilities this fall and winter, they’re still waiting for the state money that’s going to pay for the bulk of the work.
Touting that “education is the key to advancement,” since September Gov. Chris Christie has publicly celebrated at least two higher-education construction sites made possible by a $750 million bond approved by the electorate in the summer of 2012. But so far, the institutions haven’t received one cent of promised funding from this bond or four others totaling $1.3 billion that were renewed or reauthorized last year.
After a one-month application window closed last March, Christie’s office informed more thanthat they’d been selected to share in the “Building Our Future Bond Act” (the “GO Bond Act”), the first statewide, voter-approved bond program for higher education in 25 years. A total of $100 million worth of bonds were sold last year but not distributed, and some of the approximately face potential delays if the money doesn’t come soon.
And even though the office of the secretary of higher education officially made the selections, critics are accusing Christie of playing favorites with the choices.
Emotions have run high over the awarding process for both GO Bonds and the four others. With the last massive statewide infusion of capital financing coming in 1988, these institutions aren’t sure when it will come again. That’s led Christie critics, including former House Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) and former gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono, to imply that he played politics with the awards.
Of particular concern: more than $11 million to two private religious training academies ($10.6 million in GO Bond funds to the Beth Midrash Govoha college for Talmudic study and $642,000 to the Princeton Theological Seminary) and $37 million to University Hospital, which ceased to be an institution of higher education when it was taken over by Rutgers and Rowan as part of the Higher Education Health Sciences Restructuring Act of 2012.
The governor’s press office didn’t respond to emailed questions; neither did the secretary of higher education.
Controversial or not, the legislature approved the winners list as is, and now what’s left to do is sign the contracts, put the remaining bonds on the market, and distribute the funds as needed.
“We’re still waiting for final confirmation, but everything we hear is that the approval to begin spending will be issued shortly,” said Camden County College President Raymond Yannuzzi.
The pace is set by the Secretary of Higher Education and the Educational Facilities Authority (EFA), an independent state agency that brokers construction bonding for the state’s colleges and universities.
According to John Wilson, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey, the EFA put bonds on the market for two of the additional programs last month, and staffers at the agencies are scrambling to write contracts for the financing of each construction project before they release the funds to the award recipients or put any more bonds on the market.
“Things are moving forward according to schedule,” he saidlate last month, one week after meeting with the executive director of EFA and the treasury secretary. “Bond council had to make sure all the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed. My expectation is this will all come to fruition this spring.”
But Camden County College (CCC) is one institution that’s up against a deadline: If it doesn’t complete a purchase of the Settlement Music School in Camden by June, construction workers will be pressed to turn the building into an urban workforce development facility in time for the fall semester. The college is using existing funds to perform environmental testing of the building but needs its promised $1.6 million from the GO bonds to move forward.