Spotlight on: Education

Paterson School No. 14 is over 100 years old. Not surprisingly, it’s not up to code in many places, like the stairwells and hallways, as facilities director Neil Mapp explained.

“We have an open staircase that doesn’t meet current fire codes. So it would allow smoke and flame to spread to the upper floors. So there is no two-hour rated partitions around this staircase as you would see in new schools,” Mapp said. “We have an area where we’re hanging coats and bags because we don’t have adequate space for lockers.”

Paterson Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer explained some of the other repairs needed to bring the building into the 21st century.

“We can only have limited computers and technology in the building because of the electricity,” sh e said. “We need a new ventilation system. We need a new electric system. We need a cook-in kitchen.”

Add to that a tiny cafeteria that also serves as a gymnasium and auditorium, a makeshift playground built on a slant, classes held in hallways, and a roof and windows that need to be replaced.

“And then you need to weigh, is it worth putting all that money into a building that’s over 100 years old or do we need a new school right here. And I would think, so that our children get the education that they deserve with all the accommodations, we need a new building,” said Shafer. “I would say [it would cost] about $30 million.”

Paterson has gotten the funding to build new schools in recent years. In 2015, Public School 16 was replaced with a state-of-the-art school that looks and feels completely different than the antiquated School 14. School 16 has new computer labs, a huge café-torium complete with a stage and lighting, lockers for students’ belongings, and a brand new playground where kids can let loose.

“Your understanding of what you deserve in life and where you can be in the future is impacted by your daily experiences. If my daily experience is walking into a building that reflects 21st century, then I see myself as part of this 21st century movement where I can be part of the jobs that reflect an environment like this one,” said School 16 Principal Nancy Tavarez-Correa.

But funding for emergency and capital projects for Paterson schools comes from the Schools Development Authority. The agency oversees and pays for all construction projects in the state’s 31 SDA districts, formerly known as Abbott Districts.

“It realty puts us in limbo as to what’s going to happen to a building like this. Right now, because SDA is in a difficult position. I’m not sure,” Shafer said.

Difficult position is an understatement. The SDA is broke, according to its former CEO, Lizette Delgado-Polanco who resigned amid accusations that she replaced experienced staff with unqualified cronies. After borrowing more than $12 billion, the agency has only $60 million left to cover emergency repairs for all of its schools over the next six years. Senate President Steve Sweeney says the agency has been ineffective and he wants to roll it into the Economic Development Authority.

So where does that leave districts in desperate need of those funds — like Paterson?

“We have a lot of priorities and one is to provide our children with a thorough and efficient education. And in order to do that, you need buildings that are not substandard. And every child in the city of Paterson has the right to a thorough and efficient education irregardless of where they live,” Shafer said.

The district is currently working on its next 5-year plan. It’ll identify schools that need to be completely replaced, or schools that need new roofs or new windows. But as long as funding from the state remains uncertain, it’ll only be that — a plan.

NJ Spotlight founder and education writer John Mooney joined NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams on set to discuss the most recent events with the Schools Development Authority.

He said there may be more trouble for the government authority charged with funding school infrastructure projects throughout the state. By its own admission, the SDA is running out of money. There doesn’t seem to be the political will in Trenton to deal with the issue as budget negotiations are already tense approaching the constitutional deadline of June 30.

How does that affect schools across the state? Take Paterson’s School No. 14, for example. It was built in 1886 and is in a state of disrepair. The basement auditorium doubles as a lunchroom and the library isn’t a lot more than a bookshelf in the second-floor hallway. If legislators cannot address the issue, the state Supreme Court may step in once again and compel a solution, just as it did at the genesis of the construction program.

Under our new partnership, NJ Spotlight and NJTV News are working together to jointly cover critical public policy issues in New Jersey. This is the first of our “Spotlight” features that aims to bring perspective to core topics and debates, this time on the state of New Jersey’s school facilities.

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