Schools Chief Admits NJ Mishandled Construction Process in Needy Districts

John Mooney | January 22, 2015 | Education
Hespe concedes state didn’t follow legally required procedure, says it’s now complying with law

In a rare show of cooperation with one of its staunchest critics, the Christie administration has agreed with a legal challenge to the way the state Department of Education reviews and approves new school-construction projects in New Jersey’s neediest cities.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe this month sided with an administrative law judge’s recommendation that backed a challenge from the Education Law Center over the operations of Hespe’s own department.

The complaint filed in 2012 by the ELC, which has led the landmark Abbott v. Burke school-funding litigation, accused the department of failing to ensure that districts covered under the Abbott case completed required long-range facilities plans that would drive the construction projects.

At the time, the ELC maintained that the department had not received new plans in five years, and the case has been central in the ELC’s ongoing challenge to the Christie administration’s slow pace in moving forward with court-ordered projects for these districts.

The school-construction work has since gotten underway, but the ELC has continued to maintain that the administration has still not adhered to the law requiring it to follow long-range plans set by the districts.

Hespe, in his decision on Jan. 13, conceded that his department’s Office of School Facilities had not fulfilled its requirements under the court’s edict and under the law, and said it would now comply.

Hespe, who joined the department after the initial complaint was filed, said action had already begun.

“The Commissioner recognizes that OSF has made substantial efforts toward approving amended LRFPs for the (Abbott) districts,” Hespe wrote.

“Nevertheless, after consideration of the record, the Commissioner is in accord with the ALJ’s determination – for the reasons stated in the Initial Decision – that the OSF has not yet fully complied with the (law) in this regard.”

In his ruling, Hespe did extend the deadline for the new long-range plans, from the judge’s recommendation of 60 days to 90 days.