State’s Urban Schools Need Extensive Repairs and Expansion, Report Says

As many as one-third of education facilities in NJ are not in compliance or up to code

Credit: WHYY/NewsWorks
State Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf.
With questions mounting over the slow pace of the state’s school repairs and construction, an internal report by the state Department of Education acknowledges the sorry condition of many of New Jersey’s urban schools – with as many as one-third of them not up to building code or in compliance.

The July 2013 report – “Educational Facilities Needs Assessment” (EFNA) — by the state agency’s facilities office cites an “enormous need” for repairs and expansion of facilities in the 30 school districts covered by the Abbott v. Burke court rulings that ordered more than $8 billion in school upgrades more than a decade ago.

“The 2013 EFNA continues to show enormous need in the SDA districts to address overcrowding and educational adequacy,” the report reads at one point.

The report was provided this week by the Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation. The ELC said it sought and received the report under the state’s Open Public Records Act. The group maintained that state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf had failed to publicize its findings or work with Abbott districts in developing it.

‘”It is hard to fathom how Commissioner Cerf can justify withholding from parents, concerned citizens and legislators crucial information about the health, safety and suitability of schools that thousands of urban students attend every day,” David Sciarra, the ELEC’s executive director, said in an email.

“Even worse, this information is required by law to determine which schools are most in need of renovation or replacement,” Sciarra said.

The report says that 22 of 27 projects launched in various stages by the Schools Development Authority in the last two years have made some progress. It lists projects slated for virtually every one of the districts.

But the report also highlights deficiencies that remain, saying that enrollment increases in particular have left dozens of buildings overcrowded and inadequate to serve students – and that the situation is just getting worse.

“The 2013 EFNA continues to show enormous need that has been further compounded by enrollment growth of over 8,000 students in grades PK-8 since 2010,” the report reads. “While progress has been made in some areas, including a significant reduction in the number of students being educated in non-FES compliant buildings, capacity deficiencies continue to mount despite the funded new construction.”

The Christie administration has largely stayed mum about the report, simply noting that the document was provided to the Schools Development Authority, the agency charged with overseeing much of the work.

A spokesman for the state Department of Education, Michael Yaple, said it was among countless documents and reports that the department completes each year.

“State law requires the Department of Education to prepare this document for the SDA at least once every five years,” Yaple said in an email.

“This is one of thousands of documents and reports the Department prepares every year and, while the Department doesn’t issue a formal announcement each time a document or report is produced, we do ensure citizens have full access to these public records.”

A spokeswoman for the SDA would not comment on the report, but the agency has maintained that it continues to make progress on projects across the state.