Spotlight: The State of School Facilities in NJ

With the Schools Development Authority engulfed in scandal and all but out of funds, when will there be money to fix this Paterson school and others like it?

Paterson's School No. 14 ; Paterson is an Abbott district.
Under our new partnership, NJ Spotlight is teaming up with NJTV News to jointly cover critical public policy issues in New Jersey. This is the first of our “Spotlight” features that aims to bring perspective to core topics and debates, this time on the state of New Jersey’s school facilities.

Given the recent scandal over hirings, firings and tapped-out finances at New Jersey’s Schools Development Authority, the date is striking on the cupola of Paterson’s School No. 14: 1886.

Yes, 1886 — a school built just after the Reconstruction period continues to serve about 270 elementary school students in one of New Jersey’s largest cities. The basement auditorium doubles as a lunchroom. And the library isn’t a lot more than a bookshelf in the second-floor hallway.

The condition of School No.14 and of many schools in New Jersey came into stark relief last month, as the Murphy administration fended off questions over personnel practices at the SDA, the agency charged with overseeing school construction across the state.

Lizette Delgado-Polanco, the CEO of the SDA was forced to resign, and questions mounted over whether the authority should be abolished outright and its functions overseeing school construction and funding shifted elsewhere.

But almost forgotten in the scandal is that the SDA by its own admission is essentially out of money for new construction work in school districts, with money from a $12 billion bond fund — that at the start was one of the largest in the country — having been spent over decades.

Scores of projects have been completed by the SDA and only about 20 remain and are still proceeding. After that, the authority said no new projects can be funded without an additional infusion of cash.

Aging and deteriorating

For schools like No. 14 in Paterson and countless others around New Jersey that are aging and deteriorating, there is unlikely to be any state relief in sight.

From Gov. Phil Murphy on down, the state’s top lawmakers have said there is no appetite to embark on a new school construction push anytime soon. A precise price tag on the need is elusive, but all agree it would run into billions of dollars and would require significant borrowing by the state.

In an interview with NJ Spotlight this week, Senate President Steve Sweeney said the state’s financial condition has left no room for such an endeavor right now. And he said there is no willingness to borrow even a smaller sum.

“How do I go get $5-6 billion when we are a financial wreck?” Sweeney said on Wednesday. “I don’t know what to do. We are really in a financial mess here.”

Murphy hasn’t been more much encouraging, saying this spring that the administration has not made school construction a top priority. “That is to be determined,” he said when asked about the need in a meeting with NJ Spotlight’s staff.

Frustrated and waiting

That has left advocates and districts frustrated and waiting. There had been some hope this spring when the SDA was making the case for new funding and documenting the facility needs in districts like Newark and Camden.

Lizette Delgado-Polanco, former CEO of the Schools Development Authority
Speaking before the Assembly’s budget committee, outgoing CEO Delgado-Polanco was outspoken about the needs, pointing to schools like Paterson’s School No. 14.

“We have seen one school that is 170 years old,” she said of a Newark school, before the scandal engulfed her. “These should not be schools, these should be museums.”

The state’s voters last fall did approve a $500 million bond that would provide some relief for local districts, although mainly for infrastructure needs. The bulk would go to county vocational districts.

But even that process has been slow to move, and there is no guarantee that money will be distributed in the next year. The state’s school boards association, for one, has been awaiting the release of regulations for the spending of the funds, six months after the voters said “yes.”

“There’s a sense of frustration that the voters have spoken, and here we still are,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the association.

Back to the courts?

Ultimately, the issue may rest outside the Murphy administration or the Legislature. The state Supreme Court was the genesis of the construction program a generation ago, when in its seminal Abbott v. Burke rulings it demanded a massive school construction program in the first place on behalf of the state’s poorest districts.

The leaders of that litigation have watched fulfillment of that commitment strain, yet they remain hopeful the administration will move forward. Under the current process, districts across the state are completing five-year reports of their facility needs. There is apparently no shortage.

“I can tell you in the long-range plans that I have, there are something like 380 projects that are listed,” said Theresa Luhm, attorney with the Education Law Center, which has led the Abbott litigation and pressed hardest on school facility needs.

Luhm acknowledged the process has stalled but the law center remains adamant that the state is required to address those needs. “The state is constitutionally obligated to provide safe and adequate school facilities,” she repeated.

And might it require the law center to ask for the state Supreme Court to step in again? “I would only say we are a seriously considering it,” Luhm said.

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