Suburban School Construction Hits Lowest Point in Past Decade

In the suburbs, a handful of renovation projects represent the only activity

2011 did not turn out to be a very good year for school construction in New Jersey.

On the heels of the Schools Development Authority launching just a single project so far in one of New Jersey’s poorest districts, the suburban districts had their slowest year in a decade as well.

On Tuesday, just two of six projects proposed by districts were approved by voters in the referendum votes that take place five times a year. That makes 2011 the lowest year for both the number of projects approved and projects proposed since the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act was signed in 2000.

Only a quarter of the 24 projects proposed overall this year won voter approval, according to the state’s School Boards Association, continuing a trend from the middle of the decade when a majority passed. In 2010, only half were approved. The best year was in 2003, when 93 projects were proposed, and voters passed 73 of them.

“It could be a blip on the screen, but if we’re seeing any trend, we are definitely in a valley,” said Frank Belluscio, communications director for the association. ”We hope it picks up, especially where districts can show there is a demonstrated need.”

The chief reason for the slowdown is the lagging economy, Belluscio and others said, followed by continuing low expectations that the state will help bear the load of new projects.

“That is a major factor in this,” Belluscio said of the state help. “Without the state money, we also have seen fewer proposals in general. It’s a reflection of the economy. Districts know what their taxpayers are facing and don’t want to add to the burdens.”

Still, he said the Facilities Act has led to hundreds of projects since 2000, amounting to more than $7 billion in suburban districts that got a jump start from the state.

This comes as criticism mounts that the state has been slow to help poorer districts that the act was meant to address in the first place, as ordered by the state Supreme Court in the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings. Just one new SDA project has been put out to bid in two years, with a second expected soon.

“From a non-Abbott perspective at least,” Belluscio said. “It has been a success.”

Still, the latest round of votes on Tuesday was pretty typical for the year. Virtually all were building repairs and renovations, since the number of new schools has dwindled statewide with the leveling off in enrollment. Also typical, the smaller projects did better than the big-ticket ones.

The two approved were in Randolph, where voters were asked to vote on $11.6 million in renovations and new turf fields and bleachers, and in Greater Egg Harbor, where voters passed $14.2 million in roof, fire alarm, and heating and air conditioning projects.

The biggest proposal on the ballot was $48 million in Piscataway for the replacement of roofs in 12 schools with solar panel installations. The district made the argument that the projects would pay for themselves in energy savings, but as the solar industry and solar certificates have taken a dive in the state, it became a tougher sell.

“It wasn’t a solar referendum but a roofing referendum,” said Robert Copeland, the Piscataway superintendent. “We needed to fix our roofs.”

“But in some ways it was hard for people to believe in good news, not with the distrust in government that is still out there,” he said.