Education Law Center Back in Court Seeking Money for New Abbott Schools

John Mooney | November 13, 2019 | Education
It’s the first court action since 2017 for the group, which has a 40-year history of pressing a school-equity agenda
Credit: USDOE
Murphy administration has agreed there is a need for more state aid.

After a hiatus of a couple of years, plaintiffs in New Jersey’s landmark Abbott v. Burke school-equity case are back with a familiar request to the court: Order the state to provide adequate school buildings to its poorest districts.

But after Trenton’s own pause over school construction, the question now will be whether it has much changed in its willingness — and financial capacity — to address the needs.

The Education Law Center, which has led the Abbott litigation for more than 40 years, announced Tuesday it had filed a challenge in state Supreme Court contending Trenton had failed to live up to its promises under previous Abbott rulings to provide adequate school buildings and facilities to 31 needy districts.

It was the first action under Abbott since 2017 when then-Gov. Chris Christie unsuccessfully asked the court to throw out the state’s funding formula.

Before that, the court last ruled in 2010 against Christie and the Legislature for cutting aid to the districts designated by the rulings, including Newark, Paterson, Jersey City and Camden. Five hundred million dollars was restored.

Impatient over lack of progress

This time, the law center has a more sympathetic party in Gov. Phil Murphy, whose administration has said there is a clear need for additional state aid for school construction, not just in urban districts, but suburban ones as well.

But after several months of talks, the lead attorney for the Newark-based law center said he was done waiting.

“There was a lot of correspondence back and forth, and we were in meetings until June,” said David Sciarra, the group’s executive director. “We had just reached a point where we had no alternative but to ask the court to step in.”

The new filing asks for the court specifically to order the state to complete its statewide capital plan for the Abbott districts, essentially codifying assessments of the needs in each. And with that information, it asked the court to require the state to pay for that plan.

“They are pretty far along,” Sciarra said of the administration’s work to date. “We are just asking them to take the last step and develop a new capital plan.”

But with a price tag likely in the billions, nothing will be easy about this case, especially at a time when the very fate of the state’s school-construction program under the Schools Development Authority is unclear.

A long, tortured history

The SDA’s saga by now is well-documented, starting with early accusations of waste and fraud within its predecessor agency, the Schools Construction Corporation, to more recent questions of patronage and nepotism as the SDA.

In between, the school construction program that topped $12 billion at its inception — including aid to non-Abbott districts as well — was at the time, the largest of its kind in the country, in some cases transforming districts with buildings that were more than a century old.

But those were headier times, and the SDA has since announced it has run out of money for new projects. The agency this year identified 15 districts with a “magnitude” of need to provide a constitutionally required education, and at least 23 “priority” projects stalled from the last count eight years ago.

Murphy has not denied the needs, but when asked in the past, he has hedged on when and how the state would come up with the additional cash. Senate President Steve Sweeney has been equally circumspect, also raising the question about whether the SDA should remain in control.

Murphy’s office on Tuesday repeated its general support for a revived school construction program, but did not explain how or why talks broke down with the Law Center.

“Gov. Murphy believes that all New Jersey students, regardless of location, deserve access to high-quality schools,” read an emailed statement from Alyana Alfaro Post, his press secretary. “The Administration is committed to providing all students with learning environments that will enable them to thrive and succeed.”

Pushback expected over price tag

But there is sure to be resistance, too, including from fellow Democrats who fear the state is over-extended already. One outspoken critic outside the State House has said the funding system under Abbott has come at the expense of non-Abbott districts, many of them equally poor.

“New Jersey’s budget is zero-sum,” said Jeffrey Bennett of the advocacy group Fair Funding Action Committee. “An increase in debt servicing costs is inevitably going to be taken away from money that could go to K-12 operating aid, pre-K, and even TPAF (the Teachers Pension and Annuity Fund).”

This is not the first time the law center has gone to court to force the hand of a Democratic governor. In 2005 and again in 2007, it pressed Gov. Jon Corzine and the Legislature to adequately maintain the construction program. It succeeded, but the legal process wasn’t quick.

“That took about two years, but I would say the state was much further behind then,” he said. “The preliminary work is done and the projects identified. It is simply a matter of finalizing the capital plan and presenting it to the Legislature.”

Others said it’s an issue that still resonates with the public, and going to court isn’t a bad strategy to move the political process along, too.

“In order to get money, you need to articulate the problem and agitate people to realizing they need to do something,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the former chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association and now director of the Guarini Center for Government and Leadership at St. Peter’s University.

“And so lawsuits in this case might be a useful tool to develop that political will,” she said. “Not just the governor — I think he wants to do it — but the political will statewide.”

NJTV News report about Paterson School No. 14, one of the aging buildings that would benefit from new SDA funding