The condition of New Jersey’s school buildings is getting extra attention this year in State House budget hearings, as concerns mount about how schools, especially in the hardest-hit communities, will fare coming out of the pandemic at a time the state’s construction fund is drying up.
Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed an additional $200 million to tide existing projects over for another year and another $75 million to address the most emergent new needs. But as Monday’s Assembly Budget Committee witnessed, the reality remains that a far larger infusion of funds will likely be required — and possibly ordered by the court — to address the state’s deepening needs.
State Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic) led the questioning and said the pandemic had exacerbated the needs in his home district of Paterson, where some schools are more than a century old and officials have struggled with the new pandemic-driven standards for air ventilation and social distancing.
“This has really showed, where you have buildings that are 100 years old and facing booming populations,” he said.
Manuel Da Silva, the head of the state Schools Development Authority, which oversees school construction in many of the neediest districts, was asked several times at the hearing to put a number on the estimated need for just the so-called emergent projects, let alone overall costs.
Da Silva promised the committee an estimate would be forthcoming, but also noted that the $33 million now committed in 11 emergent projects just scratches the surface.
“The numbers that we have approved is just a small percentage,” Da Silva said. “There is a significant need … but the funding is the issue right now.”
Court battle underway
Even with Murphy’s one-year infusion, the administration and Legislature will likely not be able to put off the state’s school construction demands too much longer.
The Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke education-equity litigation, has gone back to the state Supreme Court to demand the state provide the funds to meet the court’s long-standing order for safe and adequate facilities in the 31 mostly urban districts that fall under those Abbott rulings. The program has all but stalled in the last few years, as the initial $8 billion investment is all spent or committed with scores of projects still to be completed.
That case is pending and going through an exchange of legal briefs, but the law center’s spokeswoman said in an email that the administration and Legislature need to come up with a plan to address the needs, before the court forces its hand. Lawmakers and others have estimated additional bonding totaling several billion dollars will likely be required.
“It seems clear the Legislature is ready to increase SDA bonding authority, and what it needs is a number,” said Sharon Krengel, the ELC’s policy and outreach director. “We continue to be disappointed that the Murphy administration has been unwilling to give the Legislature the number for both major projects and emergent repairs.”
Krengel added that the SDA has failed to even conduct an updated survey of school-building conditions in the Abbott districts, as it planned back in 2019. “If they had done it, or at least started on it, we would have a lot more systematic information about which buildings can meet reopening requirements,” she said.
Work continues amid pandemic
Nevertheless, Da Silva said the SDA’s work has not stopped during the pandemic, as the agency finished three news schools and one major addition this fall. The new schools were in East Orange, Pemberton and Harrison, and the addition was to Millville High School. The SDA also has eight other projects under construction, and three more in planning.
If approved, he said, the $75 million in new money for emergent projects will be earmarked for both Abbott and non-Abbott districts, with priority to those addressing health and safety needs due to the pandemic.
“The SDA will collaborate with DOE to initiate a process for outreach to districts in order to develop the most efficient, effective and time-sensitive approach for advancement of appropriate project work within the $75 million,” Da Silva said.