Battle over NJ funding for schools in poorest districts is back in court. Yet again

‘Unfortunately, this administration has been no different in this regard than its predecessors,’ says advocate 
Paterson’s School No. 14, built in 1886, is one of the many crumbling schools around the state.

A four-decade legal battle over public school funding has landed back in the New Jersey Supreme Court, with a prominent watchdog group accusing state officials of again ignoring a constitutional mandate to repair and replace aging and shoddy school buildings in many of the state’s poorest communities.

The motion filed by the Education Law Center (ELC) on Friday claims that since 2014, neither the governor nor the Legislature has provided any additional money toward the court-required funding. That has left the Schools Development Authority (SDA), the state agency tasked with compliance in this matter, virtually broke and unable to initiate any of the dozens of “urgently needed” construction projects it identified in 2019. The solution ELC seeks is that the court order state officials to come up with a spending plan by June 30.

“It’s too bad we have to regularly go back to the Supreme Court to make the state fulfill its obligation to provide a thorough and efficient education to our students,” ELC Executive Director David Sciarra said in an interview Friday. “Unfortunately, this administration has been no different in this regard than its predecessors.”

The lawsuit cites the SDA’s own report from last year, which noted there are 18,000 students “who don’t have the seats they need” in overcrowded schools, as well as 7 million square feet of school space in poor districts that is more than 90 years old.

It quotes former SDA Executive Director Lizette Delgado-Polanco, who offered this assessment to the Assembly Budget Committee in 2019 after visiting more than 125 substandard schools:

“These schools should not be schools … they should be museums,” she testified. “New Jersey students can’t receive a 21st Century education in 19th Century facilities.”

‘The pandemic is what threw us off’

For his part, Senate President Steve Sweeney acknowledges the state’s responsibility and in part blamed COVID-19 for the delay. “This pandemic is what threw us off,” Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said recently in an interview with NJ Spotlight News staff. “We were talking last year about doing a $6.5 billion bond — three for schools and three for water infrastructure. And then the pandemic hit.”

“The Legislature has had over six years to get this done,” Sciarra of ELC told NJ Spotlight News on Friday. “What the pandemic has done is expose long-standing unsafe and inadequate conditions in far too many of our school buildings. COVID-19 has also made the need for funding to address those conditions that much more urgent.”

The lawsuit accuses the state of ignoring its own recently created safety guidelines, which call for upgrades on deficient ventilation systems to make schools COVID-19 safe.

“To date, neither the (Department of Education) nor the SDA have surveyed … or assessed the condition of SDA school buildings under the DOE’s standards for ventilation, heating and cooling,” the suit claims.

When asked for comment on the lawsuit, a spokesman for Gov. Phil Murphy’s office said, “We won’t be commenting on pending litigation.”

Leveling the playing field

Friday’s filing revives the 1981 landmark case Abbott v. Burke, when the state Supreme Court issued its first in a series of game-changing decisions by ordering the state to subsidize its underfunded, urban school districts to level the playing field with their wealthier suburban counterparts.

Since then, ELC has sued the state more than 20 times to enforce the court’s remedial orders. The school construction element of the court order emerged in a decision known as Abbott IV in 1997, which stated that the 31 special-needs urban districts had older, crumbling school facilities that required more maintenance and renovation.

As a result of the court order, the state established the Schools Construction Corporation, which later became the current SDA. The two agencies have been awarded a total of $12.5 billion in bond proceeds, the last infusion of capital, $2.9 billion, coming in 2008.

All of those funds have either been spent or dedicated to current projects. In other words, the SDA is broke, and without further funding would have to close its doors in 2024, according to the suit.

In April, the Supreme Court dismissed a similar ELC motion, saying it was “premature” and that ELC should wait and see if there would be funding in the next state budget. In that spending plan, which was enacted in September, “the Governor did not propose, nor did the Legislature authorize” any funds for school improvements, the suit states.

Emergency COVID-19 school funding  

Sciarra tried another track, according to the suit. In a September letter to Gov. Phil Murphy, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), he requested the state use at least $500 million from an emergency $27 billion COVID-19 bond deal to meet safety requirements for school buildings to reopen. He received no response.

Sciarra further claims the state won’t even provide a cost estimate for the projects it proposed in 2019.

“Extensive efforts to secure additional construction funding from the State — ongoing since 2015 — have proven unsuccessful,” the suit states, leaving ELC with “no alternative but to again seek this Court’s intervention.”

“I still think before we do anything that the SDA has to be rolled into the EDA (Economic Development Authority),” Sweeney told NJ Spotlight News. “It’s a bloated organization with too many employees. Before we get a bunch more money, we have to make sure it will be spent properly.”

To which Sciarra responded:

“If Sen. Sweeney believes the Abbott school construction program needs some legislative fix, what’s he been waiting for? That is no excuse for any further delay by lawmakers in meeting their constitutional obligation to ensure students are educated in safe and not overcrowded buildings, especially during the pandemic.”

Sweeney could not be reached for immediate comment Friday. But he did offer this thought during his recent meeting with the NJ Spotlight News staff:

“I know if (Sciarra) goes to the courts —  he has won the last few times and he’ll probably win again. … There is no doubt in my mind that if he takes us to court that he will win. But it’s not as if we were ignoring it.”