NJ Department of Education Blamed for Slowing Repair of Decaying Schools

John Mooney | April 26, 2012 | Education
Advocacy group files suit for project delays in poorest districts, claiming students at risk

The Christie administration’s slow pace with court-ordered school construction and repairs is now heading to court, this time with a twist on who actually is being sued.

The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group representing school children under the Abbott v. Burke litigation, yesterday announced it had filed a lawsuit over what it said was the administration’s failure to move on scores of so-called “emergent projects” in the state’s poorest districts.

They include more than 100 roof repairs, and dozens of air conditioning and heating system replacements, and a host of fire safety upgrades. Newark alone has more than 100 projects in need, the lawsuit reads. Trenton has 99 and Camden another 95.

The lawsuit cited more than 60 repair needs that potentially imperil students’ health and safety.

And while the usual target of complaints has been the long beleaguered Schools Development Authority, which oversees this work, the twist is the lawsuit is against the state Department of Education. The SDA oversees and manages the eventual work, but it is the department that determines and approves the projects, the key point in the suit.

“The law clearly requires the state to address hazardous school conditions, and almost nothing has been done in the last two years,” said Greg Little, the lawyer working on behalf of the ELC in the case.

“Every school day thousands of children, teachers and other staff using … school buildings where these emergent conditions exist face an imminent threat to their health and safety.”

As required, the complaint was filed with the head of the agency being challenged, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf, and is almost surely to be referred to an administrative law judge. Either way, the lawsuit is likely to take many months to wind its way through the process and could prove as much a political tactic as a legal one to put pressure on the state

The lawsuit does not speak to the long delays in restarting the long list of new construction projects being managed by the state and the SDA, arguably an even bigger point of contention with districts.

A spokesman for Cerf said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

A spokeswoman for the Schools Development Authority also would not comment, even though the SDA is technically not a defendant, but she cited the SDA’s announcement last month that it would move on 76 of the projects in 21 districts.

“We are now positioned to address the most critical needs of our districts and make sure our school facilities are safe learning environments for all students,” said Marc Larkins, the chief executive of the SDA, in making that announcement.

However, the complaint from ELC contends that while the SDA made that announcement in March, no final determination or timelines have yet to be set for any of the projects. It detailed a string of correspondences between the state and the districts, but still no go-aheads on the projects.

“While the DOE issued so-called ‘status determination’ letters to districts in March — identifying 76 of approximately 760 projects submitted as ‘potential’ emergent projects — the Department did not issue any final decision on the projects and has provided no timeline for when those decisions will be made and, more importantly, when these unsafe and dangerous conditions will be addressed,” read the ELC’s announcement yesterday.

The lawsuit contends that the department is in violation of the Abbott v. Burke school rulings that ordered the work in the first place, as well as statute and its own regulations.

The cited health and safety projects involve a slew of needs, the lawsuit said, including leaks and ensuing mold, faulty air-conditioning and its impact on students with asthma, and more than a dozen cases of inoperable or nonexistent fire safety measures.

Whether projects were “emergency” needs, versus “emergent” ones, has been part of the dispute between districts and the state.

The SDA has maintained the districts must act on any projects imperiling students’ health and safety. Some advocates have said the state has stalled so long on projects that emergent needs have become emergency ones.

A handful of districts are expected to join this lawsuit, said their lawyer, Richard Shapiro, yesterday, but they had yet to do so.