Support Builds in N.J. For Giant Facilities Plan
Days away from a court-imposed deadline, legislators in New Jersey were closing in on a plan last week that could provide as much as $12 billion for local school construction projects. Yes, $12 billion.
Depending on the details of the initiative, it could be the largest state program of its kind and would shift much of the burden of paying for school facilities from local property owners to the state.
The legislation grew out of a 1998 ruling by the state supreme court requiring the state to provide adequate educational facilities in the 30 low-income, mostly urban school districts covered under the long-running Abbott v. Burke school funding lawsuit. ("High Court in N.J. Ends Funding Suit," May 27, 1998.)
In the works since shortly after that ruling, the legislation gained momentum in recent weeks after the Assembly and the Senate passed separate school building plans.
Unable to work out the differences between the two chambers, the Senate postponed a vote June 8 that could have sent the Assembly blueprint to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. The governor, a Republican, could sign the bill, or veto it with conditions.
"We are looking for a consensus on major differences," said Rae Hutton, the spokeswoman for Senate President Donald T. DeFrancesco, a Republican. "He does not feel that engaging in a game of pingpong on such an important bill would be productive."
The court-set deadline for providing money to meet the facilities needs of the "special needs" districts covered by the suit is June 19. The legislative session is slated to close June 29.
"People are getting tired of the litigation," said David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs in the Abbott suit. "Like it or not, the court has ordered these revisions."
Schools in Waiting
School leaders across the state were awaiting the outcome of the legislative wrangling, which began two years ago and has stalled as often as traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike during a holiday weekend.
The 45,000-student Newark school district is drawing up plans to build nine schools on new sites, replace 34 existing schools, and renovate another 14 sites—projects that together are expected to cost about $1.7 billion.
Right now, three of the most urgent projects are on hold until state funding is available. And the wait is raising new concerns. For example, the district has had to order 200 portable classrooms to accommodate overcrowding. The problem is that the units sit on space earmarked for the replacement schools.
As a result, said Corwin Frost, the facilities planner for the Newark schools, the district may be forced to acquire more land, instead of building on existing school property. "We had anticipated breaking ground right now," he said. "That's not taking place."
Other school officials pointed out that land is getting scooped up by eager developers, and that construction costs are bound to rise the longer projects are delayed.
Meanwhile, the state education department is holding back on approving five-year construction plans submitted by the Abbott districts. "Our position is that we can't make the final decisions until we know the parameters of the law," said Robert DeSando, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education. "Once a law is signed, we're ready to move forward."
Districts are eyeing the package for its tax relief. The bill would apply benefits of the program retroactively to projects that were approved by local voters on or after Sept. 1, 1998, about when Gov. Whitman announced her own, $10 billion school construction plan.
Frederick J. Stokley, the superintendent of the Ridgewood district in northern New Jersey, said the retroactive benefit would mean $8 million could come from the state to reduce local property taxes from a $20 million school construction bond that his suburban, 5,100-student district passed in December 1998.
"This is major legislation for the state," he added. "Many states provide funding for construction, but it's a far-fetched notion here."
Difference in Details
In the legislature, last week's movement centered on the competing Senate and Assembly bills.
The Senate had taken the lead in writing legislation, passing its version of school construction legislation early last month.
By that time, progress in the Assembly had stalled, however, after Speaker Jack Collins, a Republican, asked the supreme court to clarify whether the legislature could pay less than 100 percent of school construction costs in the special-needs districts.
A five-judge panel of the Supreme Court of New Jersey gave him an answer in no uncertain terms, ruling May 25 that "the state is required to fund all the costs of necessary facilities remediation and construction in the Abbott districts."
The Assembly then narrowly passed its version of the bill June 5, setting up last week's negotiations between members of the lower and upper houses, along with the Whitman administration.
Among the major differences were Assembly provisions that would limit the amount of state bonds that could be sold to support the construction to $6 billion for the Abbott districts, $2.5 billion for other school systems, and $100 million for county vocational schools.
The total cost of the Assembly-sponsored program would be $8.6 billion. The Senate version has no such caps, and was estimated to carry a price tag of as much as $12 billion.
A spokesman for Mr. Collins pointed out that the Assembly bill did not preclude additional appropriations beyond those amounts, but simply limited how much debt the state could incur.
Mr. Sciarra, responded with caution to the idea of the caps: "It's OK, as long as it's crystal-clear that this is not a cap on Abbott spending."
The bills also differed over which state agency would oversee the construction program. The Senate wanted the state's economic-development authority to take the lead, while the Assembly preferred that the education department manage the program.
Included in the other sticking points was an Assembly provision that would give the legislature veto power over the Abbott-district projects in the third year of the construction program, after the most pressing health- and safety-related projects had been addressed.
Finally, Assembly leaders opposed a Senate provision that would create a pilot project in six cities to link school construction projects to local economic-development plans.
As negotiators mulled over the differences, one legislative aide said it was time for Gov. Whitman to weigh in and "take the bull by the horns." At press time late last week, the governor's office had not returned phone calls seeking comment.
Vol. 19, Issue 40, Pages 14,19