Op-Ed: Now Is the Time to Fund School Construction

David Sciarra | May 2, 2019 | Opinion
As the governor moves to re-staff the SDA, he must find committed, experienced professionals who can manage large-scale public-building programs or design and construction of school facilities

David Sciarra
The Schools Development Authority, or SDA, has been in the news lately. But as politicians argue over control of the agency, the state’s constitutional obligation to provide and fund safe and adequate school facilities remains in full force and effect.

New Jersey’s school construction program has its genesis in the 1997 ruling by the state Supreme Court in the landmark Abbott v. Burke school-funding lawsuit. In that ruling, the Court found that students in the state’s high-poverty, racially isolated, urban districts were consigned to “dilapidated, unsafe and overcrowded” school buildings, many of which were in a “grave state of disrepair.” After years of inaction by lawmakers, the Court ordered the state to “finance the construction and renovation” of needed building improvements to give students safe and adequate environments in which to learn.

In 2002, the Legislature complied with the Abbott Supreme Court order by establishing a state agency to undertake this constitutional mission.

Over the past 15 years, the SDA has completed hundreds of projects in urban districts, including new schools and additions; new roofs, boilers, and other capital maintenance; and emergent repairs. The SDA has also provided over $2 billion in grants to support hundreds of needed building upgrades in suburban and rural districts across the state.

Despite solid progress in modernizing the state’s school infrastructure, over 300 major building projects are still needed in urban districts. State grant support is also desperately needed to offset project costs, so that other districts can add classrooms for full-day kindergarten, upgrade building systems, and expand preschool.

SDA out of cash

But the SDA is out of funding, having exhausted the $3.9 billion in construction funds approved by the Legislature in 2008. The Healthy Schools Now Coalition has led efforts to raise public awareness about the critical need for school-building upgrades and improvements across the state. Over two dozen education, civil rights, and other organizations are urging Gov. Phil Murphy to begin the process of increasing funding for school construction.

As the governor brings new leadership to the SDA, he should recruit professionals with deep experience in managing large-scale public-building programs or in the design and construction of school facilities projects. In recent months, the SDA, Department of Education, school districts, and education stakeholders have documented school construction needs. The executive and Legislature must follow through with the changes necessary for SDA to continue its work in a professional, timely, and effective manner.

A crucial first step is for the SDA to finalize and release the statewide strategic capital plan to identify priority projects and their costs, as mandated by law. With that plan, the Legislature can approve the next round of bond financing. The SDA can then get back to work on new projects in urban districts, some in the queue for two decades, as well as restarting the grant program to support projects in other districts.

Over a decade ago, the Education Law Center petitioned the state Supreme Court on multiple occasions to ensure new funding for the school construction program. The result was legislation enacted in 2008 increasing the SDA’s bonding authority. We’re at that crossroads again. The time is now for Gov. Murphy and the Legislature to work together to pass and sign a bill before June 30, so tens of thousands of New Jersey students can have the facilities they need for educational success.

Providing a thorough and efficient education to all New Jersey children is the Legislature’s paramount constitutional duty. Discharging that duty requires an effective and efficient school construction program. Let’s put our children, not politics, first.