The List: The 10 Most Overcrowded Public-School Districts in NJ

Carly Sitrin | December 21, 2017 | The List
Twenty years and $8 billion later, 71 percent of New Jersey’s neediest school districts are severely overcrowded. But, where’s the money going to come from to fix them?

list button
After 20 years and more than $8 billion spent, the latest reckoning indicates that some New Jersey public school systems are still suffering from overcrowding. And worse yet, it looks like the money has run out.

A report shows that 71 percent of the state’s neediest school districts are severely overcrowded, with no abatement in sight.

The Department of Education’s 2016 Educational Facilities Needs Assessment collected data from all 31 of the Abbott districts — aka School Development Authority districts — and found that two-thirds do not have adequate space to meet student needs. This data came from Long Range Facilities Plans, submitted by each of the districts, which measure usable classroom space and enrollment data. The EFNA is crucial because its findings are used to prioritize school construction and to allocate SDA funds.

However, according to SDA financial records, the authority has committed nearly all its funding to ongoing projects already in construction, renovation, planning, or design phases.

Twenty-two of the 31 SDA districts are reported as having “deficient capacity” and/or “provide less square feet per student than prescribed” in the Facilities Efficiency Standards for one or more grade groups. To compensate for this lack of classroom space required by law, schools are sacrificing specialized instructional and support spaces like science labs and music rooms to meet capacity needs.

The EFNA also places deficient districts into one of four tiers according to their severity of need: Tier One means they have the “severest capacity and program space deficiencies,” which cannot be accommodated within existing buildings and are first on the list for funds. Tier Two districts also have severe capacity or space deficiencies that are “not as extreme” as Tier One’s but still cannot be solved by reallocating space in the current buildings. Tier Three includes districts with capacity and space deficiencies that can be solved through some reconfiguring of building space but will also require more renovation and additional building construction. Tier Four includes districts that — with some grade shuffling and building renovations — can alleviate their capacity and square-footage deficiencies by using available space in different schools.

As it stands, there is no bill in the Legislature yet to address the need for more funding for school construction. Until that happens, students will continue to suffer from the overcrowding problems.

The following is a list of the 10 most overcrowded of the SDA districts, taking into consideration capacity and enrollment. It’s important to note that some districts are worse off than others in specific grade categories and in square footage per student. To order them, we used the federal government’s formula for overcrowding: X= [(total student enrollment) – (capacity of permanent instructional buildings and space)] / (capacity of permanent instructional buildings and space).

1. Passaic — 1.4 students per seat

The Passaic school district has a listed capacity of 10,059 students yet enrolled 14,069 students in the 2014-2015 school year. The existing and projected enrollments exceed capacity in all grade groups across the board. It is listed as a “Tier One” district for all grades.

2. Elizabeth — 1.3 students per seat

Elizabeth was ranked the most deficient district for Pre-K through Grade 5 with an allowed capacity of 19,332 students and an enrollment of 25,744. Its projected capacity status for the next reporting period shows a shortage of 6,724 seats. The district also is listed as having the worst overcrowding in all grade groups for 2015-2016 enrollments. It is a “Tier One” district for all grades.

3. Perth Amboy — 1.2 students per seat

The existing and projected enrollments in Perth Amboy exceed capacity for all grade groups with most of the growth projected for PK, grades 6‐8, and grades 9‐12. Capacity is listed at 8,620 students whereas enrollment is 10,499. The district is projected to be short 3,490 seats. To ameliorate the overcrowding, the BOE recommends building a new high school, middle school, and elementary school. A new high school is in the planning/design phase.

4. Garfield — 1.19 students per seat

The capacity in Garfield district is 4,245 students while enrollment was 5,060. The district is projected to be short 1,169 seats. All grade groups except grades 6‐8 are reported as exceeding capacity but the projected enrollments would exceed capacity in all grade groups. The recommended priorities in Garfield district are expanding/renovating Roosevelt School #7 (or other K‐5 school), Garfield High School, and Woodrow Wilson School #5 (or other K‐5 school).

5. Paterson — 1.17 students per seat

The capacity in Paterson is 21,432 for an enrollment of 24,976 and is projected to be short 2,727 seats. Paterson is listed as the second most overcrowded district for grades 9-12 with the second least square footage per student in grades 6-8 based on 2015-2016 enrollments. The recommended priorities by the BOE are expanding the Kilpatrick School, replacing any pre‐1910 school building, and a new high school.

6. City of Orange — 1.15 students per seat

This district has a capacity of 4,517 and an enrollment of 5,187 students. Projected to be short 947 seats. Existing and projected enrollments exceed the capacity for all grade groups. The City of Orange has the 5th worst overcrowding in grades 9-12 based on 2015-2016 enrollments. The recommended priority schools for the district are Orange High School and Cleveland Avenue Elementary School (both of which currently are listed as in the planning or design phase) and Orange Preparatory Academy.

7. Union City — 1.13 students per seat

Union City has a capacity of 10,453 students and enrollment of 11,799. The district is projected to be short 2,304 seats. It’s listed as having the 4th least square footage per student in grades PK-5 and 4th worst overcrowding for grades 6-8, according to 2015-2016 enrollments. It is listed as a Tier One district for PK-5. The BOE recommends that it’s a priority for the district to create a new middle school (currently in design/planning phase), and two new elementary schools.

8. New Brunswick — 1.09 students per seat

New Brunswick has a capacity of 8,048 and enrollment of 8,736 students. The district is projected to be short 1,592 seats. It’s listed as the 5th worst overcrowded district in grades 6-8 based on 2015-2016 enrollments and it’s listed as a Tier Two district for grades PK-5. “Tier Two” means that it still has “severe capacity or space deficiencies” but these are not as extreme as Tier One deficiencies. These issues still cannot be solved through increased building use or reassignment, however. The BOE recommends prioritizing New Brunswick Middle School, Woodrow Wilson School, and Livingston School for renovations/expansions.

9. Bridgeton — 1.06 students per seat

Bridgeton has a capacity of 5,394 students and an enrollment of 5,729. It is projected to be short 889 seats in the next reporting period. Existing enrollments exceed capacity for all grade groups except 9‐12, but the projected enrollments will exceed capacity in all grade groups. It’s listed as a Tier Three district for grades PK-8 — meaning it has substantial capacity and space deficiencies that “cannot be solved solely by school grade alignment changes or reconfiguring space.” The priorities recommended for Bridgeton include building a new K‐8 school, and renovating or expanding Bridgeton High School and Broad Street School.

10. Jersey City — 1.007 students per seat

Jersey City has a capacity of 28,330 students and enrollment of 28,536 with a projected seat deficiency of 3,417 seats. The existing and projected enrollments significantly exceed capacity for PK‐5 and a majority of Pre-K students are currently learning in trailers. The recommended priorities include significantly increasing preschool capacity, renovating, or expanding PS 1, and Academy I.