Time To Replenish Funding For New Jersey’S School Construction Program

May 10, 2018

All $2.9 billion in bond financing for school construction projects approved by the New Jersey Legislature in 2008 is now spent or committed, and lawmakers must promptly approve a new round of funding for urgently needed projects across the state.

Education Law Center Executive Director David Sciarra issued the call to action to replenish funds for school construction in testimony to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools on May 8.

The school construction program, which provides significant support to rebuild and upgrade New Jersey’s aging facilities infrastructure, was launched in 2002 to comply with rulings in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case ordering the state to fully finance needed improvements to dilapidated, overcrowded and unsafe school buildings in the state’s 31 urban districts, called “SDA districts.”

In establishing the Abbott school construction program, the Legislature included grants for projects in non-SDA districts – called “regular operating districts” (ROD) – and county vocational schools. The program is administered jointly by the NJ Department of Education (DOE), which reviews district-wide plans and project proposals, and the Schools Development Authority (SDA). The SDA issues bonds and finances projects and is also responsible for facilities construction in the SDA districts.

ELC’s testimony highlighted the following:

  • The SDA has $1.7 billion in outstanding bond financing available for SDA districts, but virtually all of the funding is allocated to current projects in the pipeline to be completed over the next few years. 
  • In a review of the SDA districts’ most recent long range facilities plans, the DOE identified the need for 381 major school construction projects  – including renovations of 200 existing schools and construction of 102 new schools.
  • The SDA has extremely limited funds remaining for emergent repairs and capital maintenance projects in the SDA districts.
  • The funding for regular operating district grants and county vocational school facilities has been completely exhausted.

ELC urged lawmakers to immediately direct the DOE and the SDA, in consultation with the SDA districts, to develop a new statewide capital plan of needed projects to guide lawmakers in determining how much new bond financing should be authorized. ELC also recommended that the grant program priorities for regular operating districts be revised to include facilities projects designed to allow for the extension of kindergarten to a full-day program and for expanded preschool programs.

“It’s time for legislators to get to work to plan and finance the next round of needed school facilities projects across the state,” said David Sciarra. “It’s also crucial to plan for and finance the needs of all three district types – SDA and regular operating districts and county vocational schools – in the same comprehensive approach taken in 2008, and not in a piecemeal manner.”       

N.J. teacher tenure criteria need uniformity

April 14, 2011

Gov. Chris Christie has problems with the very idea of tenure, but his latest proposals for reforming the process, unveiled last week in a speech at the Brookings Institution, seem to be a recipe for chaos. Not to mention an apparent abrupt about-face on his part.

Christie said he wants to allow individual school districts to develop their own subjective teacher and principal evaluations that would make up half of the overall evaluations each year. The other half would come from growth in test scores, grades and other metrics.

Obviously, principals know their teachers and students better than strangers in Trenton, and local evaluations should have a part in the state standards. But fully half is too much weight.

Under Christie’s new proposal, hundreds of highly political local school boards would determine standards for teachers. How is that going to work and how it can it possibly be fair? It won’t and it can’t be.

There are reasons we have a state Department of Education, and one of them should be having a uniform standard for granting tenure. Teaching standards are not one of those items where letting a thousand different flowers bloom is a good idea.

As Grover J. Whitehurst, director of an education policy center at Brookings, asked, “(How) can the state tolerate a system where it is much easier, say, to be (classified) an exceptional teacher in Asbury Park than it is in Trenton?” Or Newark as opposed to Princeton?

Christie often seems confused about what he wants from local teachers and principals, and indeed muddled in understanding his own role.

“In the same way that only Nixon can go to China, you need a Republican governor who can go into the urban areas and say he cares about those kids,” Christie said.

Really? This is the same Christie who has repeatedly said his policy positions on education are virtually indiscernible from those of President Barack Obama.

The one unchanging element of the governor’s education policy is his loathing of the New Jersey Education Association. Again last week, he called NJEA lobbyists “bullies and thugs.” This name-calling has long since stopped being helpful.

If Christie truly cares about “these kids,” he should realize the importance of their teachers being held to a uniform standard of excellence.