State Supreme Court Sidesteps Ruling on Abbott School Funding

John Mooney | April 7, 2020 | Education
Education Law Center, whose motion was denied, says it’s now up to Murphy administration and Legislature to come up with needed funds
Paterson’s School No. 14 ; Paterson is an Abbott district.

The state Supreme Court has taken a pass — at least for now — on deciding the latest round of New Jersey’s epic school equity case, Abbott v. Burke.

In a one-page ruling filed Monday, the court denied “without prejudice” a motion by the Education Law Center to renew the Abbott orders for the state to provide and pay for adequate school buildings in 31 low-income urban districts, including Newark, Jersey City, Trenton and Camden.

The law center maintained the state had failed to live up to its obligation under the decades-old order to provide the same level of facilities as in the rest of the state, with hundreds of needed projects on hold for lack of funding.

But the Murphy administration had countered that the funding decisions need to be part of the budgetary process and rested with the state Legislature. Or at least the budget process at the time, before the coronavirus outbreak stalled deliberations.

In a sparely worded ruling, the court agreed with the state and said it would allow the process to proceed for the fiscal year 2021 budget, saying a decision before that budget is enacted would be “premature.”

The ruling was a setback to the plaintiffs’ hopes that the court would force that decision, citing the lack of movement by the governor and Legislature up to now. Still, their lawyers yesterday said the ruling now puts the onus on the administration and the Legislature to come up with the needed funds.

“We are not surprised by the Court’s ruling today,” said David Sciarra, Education Law Center’s executive director. “This follows a similar approach taken by the Court when faced with the need for more construction funds over a decade ago.

“By dismissing the motion ‘without prejudice,’ the Court has made clear it expects the Legislature to authorize the additional funds in the now delayed FY21 Budget and, if they fail to do so, we can ask the Court to step back in.”