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Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as N.J. Forging Massive School Building Plan

N.J. Forging Massive School Building Plan

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New Jersey lawmakers are hammering out a plan that could result in one of the most expensive state-sponsored school construction efforts ever.

While details are far from final, Senate leaders have unveiled a blueprint that could yield as much as $11.5 billion over seven years to renovate and build schools in virtually every one of the state's 618 districts. The chamber's education committee, which held a hearing on the plan last week, was slated to vote on the proposal Dec. 6.

Meanwhile, a separate school construction plan was expected to be introduced on the Assembly side late last week.

Proponents of a major state-led construction effort hope that a bill can be passed and sent to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman by the end of the legislative session, Jan. 10.

"I think they are determined to do it," said Frank Beluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "There has been a lot of work done in the last two years."

But while lawmakers appeared to be heading in that direction, they continued to differ on the specifics of a final deal, including how to finance such a massive school construction program, limitations on what would be covered by state aid, and the level of project oversight by state officials.

Gov. Whitman, a Republican, planned to meet with a bipartisan group of legislators by week's end to air such differences.

"This is a top priority of the governor," said Mrs.Whitman's spokesman, Peter McDonough. "She is hopeful this can and will be resolved by the end of this session."

Lawmakers in the Garden State have talked for years about raising the state's historically minor role in paying for and promoting school construction. It took a lawsuit, though, to push them to explore the ambitious plan that is now in the works.

The New Jersey Supreme Court last year ordered the state to pay for the facility needs of the 28 low-wealth districts that challenged the state's system of school aid in a 1982 suit.

Those school districts submitted plans to the state earlier this year for about $7 billion worth of work.

Expensive Wish List?

Mr. McDonough called the estimates, which figure prominently in the current aid talks and remain under review by state education officials, "a very expensive wish list."

In May, Gov. Whitman responded with a plan to establish a $6 billion statewide school construction effort to be subsidized with state-issued bonds, proceeds from the state's lottery, and cigarette taxes.

The current estimated cost for the Senate's blueprint is nearly double that amount. It was unclear where such a large and quick infusion of money would come from and how it would be sustained, especially if the state's expanding economy takes a turn for the worse.

Mr. McDonough said the governor was not opposed to a larger school building program. But he stressed that the current spending estimates were, at best, "a starting point for discussion."

Under the proposal that is being sponsored by GOP Sen. William L. Gormley, school construction projects would get help from the state on a sliding scale based on a district's wealth.

A $1 billion, low-interest revolving-loan account would be established for the wealthiest districts, while grants would be provided to middle-income ones. The state would pay for all state-approved construction costs for the poorest districts.

In 1993, then-Gov. James J. Florio, a Democrat, led a successful effort to create a $250 million school construction revolving fund. The fund expired, however, after lawmakers amended the program so that repayments were made to the general fund.

'Not on the Cheap'

During last week's four-hour Senate hearing, at which representatives from 18 organizations testified, concerns were raised about cost-containment measures in the plan that would impose square-footage caps on classroom sizes and use strict definitions of what the state would consider a justifiable construction expense.

"We will build an enormous number of schools over the next 10 to 15 years to serve for the next 70 years," said David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which represented the 28 low-wealth districts in the Abbot v. Burke school funding lawsuit.

"We need to do this right, and not on the cheap," he said.

Aside from funding levels and acceptable costs, other nettlesome issues include a proposal that school districts receiving more than 50 percent of their overall funding from the state be required to submit construction plans to state building officials for development, review, and approval.

That idea doesn't sit well with James H. Lytle, the superintendent of the 12,000-student Trenton schools.

"We know the needs of our district. We are mindful of costs," he told the Senate panel last week.

"Whatever economies may result from giant state bureaucracies overseeing thousands of building projects will be more than offset by delays and by projects which do not meet the true needs of our students."

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Pages 15,17

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