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Op-Ed: Ballot Question Shuts Out Most Students from Facilities Funding

Trenton needs to bring all school buildings up to par, not just vo-tech districts that are the primary beneficiaries of proposed $500M bonds

David. G. Sciarra
David. Sciarra

New Jersey should celebrate the strong gains made over the past 15 years to improve the condition of our public-school building infrastructure.

Sparked by a state Supreme Court order, New Jersey stands out in providing state financing to rebuild dilapidated and outmoded schools in poor neighborhoods. We also make state grants to supplement local taxes to maintain and upgrade schools in every district across the state.

Why are safe, not-overcrowded and educationally adequate school buildings essential? Simple. They promote student well-being, improve student learning, and increase teacher satisfaction and retention. They are literally the foundation for a high-quality education.

But our commitment to providing modern, up-to-date schools for all is at a crossroads. In 2008, lawmakers approved $2 billion in bond financing for school construction in urban, or “SDA districts,” and $1 billion for “Regular Operating Districts,” or RODs. All of that funding has now been allocated, yet urgent needs remain. In the SDA districts, 381 additional school-construction projects, including 200 renovations and 102 new buildings, must still be completed. RODs also have pressing needs, including classrooms for full-day kindergarten and pre-school expansion.

Our elected officials are well aware of the need. The former CEO of the state Schools Development Authority (SDA), Charles McKenna, made this clear in testimony before the Legislature. Advocates and local educators have been pressing the Murphy administration to take action.

Vo-techs, a ‘very small subset’ of the need

But lawmakers have turned a blind eye to the documented need by failing to develop a comprehensive, statewide, long-term capital plan to finance priority school-construction projects. Instead, they rushed through a $1-billion bond referendum, which Gov. Phil Murphy cut in half. The $500-million ballot question, titled the “Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act, is limited to county vocational school and community college facilities, with some funds for security and water-infrastructure projects in schools.

Vocational schools do have facility needs. But financing projects only for a very small subset of New Jersey students misses the mark. Urban, suburban and rural districts alike, serving almost all students in the state, have critical needs, including projects to repair leaky roofs and broken boilers, add classrooms to alleviate overcrowding, and renovate or replace outmoded, dilapidated, sometimes unhealthy or dangerous buildings.

On November 6, New Jersey voters can send lawmakers a strong message that our children need a comprehensive plan to secure their future — and not a scattershot, piecemeal approach to school construction. It’s long past time for the SDA and the state Department of Education to prepare the statewide facilities capital plan required by law and court order. That plan can then inform legislators and the public of district needs and the costs associated with meeting those needs.

A “no” vote on the bond referendum next Tuesday is not a vote against our students or our public schools. It is a vote to recommit our state to the overarching goal of ensuring all New Jersey students — and not just a select few — the opportunity to attend school in a building suitable for a 21st-century education. We’ve done this before, and we can do it again.

David Sciarra is executive director of the Education Law Center

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