Fine Print: New SDA Rules

Schools Development Authority proposal would let qualified districts oversee school construction projects

Synopsis: The Schools Development Authority this week presented for the New Jersey Register its proposed regulations for giving qualified local districts the power to oversee school construction projects. The SDA invites public comment by December 17, 2010.

What it means: The rulemaking is another chapter in the saga of the Abbott v. Burke school-equity rulings, this time centering on the state Supreme Court’s order for billions in school construction and renovation in New Jersey’s neediest districts.

With much of that program either stalled or contested, the districts have pressed to regain the authority to oversee projects. The 2007 legislation that restarted the program included requirements for the state to delegate such powers, when a district was found to be capable of the oversight. The 15 pages of rules lay out the requirements for such delegation.

Story behind the story: The administration has been bullish on the Abbott construction projects since Gov. Chris Christie took office, now reviewing more than 50 projects that had been essentially cleared in 2008. That has only heightened districts’ concerns that the projects will never be completed and their hopes to regain some oversight. The latest rule-making has been its own source of contention, with advocates going to court to force the administration to promulgate the regulations that are now nearly two years late. That challenge remains in state appeals court.

Key provision: “These proposed rules provide that the delegable portions of a school facilities project shall be limited to one or more of the following project activities: construction, construction administration, and/or demolition.” (page 1)

Why: The head of the Education Law Center, the lead advocate for the urban schoolchildren that first brought the Abbott v. Burke lawsuit, noted the legislature explicitly said qualified districts should be able to do the design and planning work. He said he is withholding judgment until the state Department of Education puts out its own rules, but added that the limit to just construction and demolition would be likely challenged in court.