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Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as N.J. Approves $12 Billion School Construction Program

N.J. Approves $12 Billion School Construction Program

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New Jersey is gearing up for its biggest public-works program ever—a state-run school construction crusade that is expected to shower local schools with $12 billion worth of new facilities and renovations over the next several years.

But as Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed the long-awaited legislation July 18, doubts simmered over how the program will operate and when ground finally will be broken on the first project.

For example, school districts want to know what types of facilities will pass muster with the state education officials who must approve them. Meanwhile, the state's economic-development authority is sailing in uncharted waters as the newly named coordinator of the school construction projects.

"Based on our analysis, it could take up to four years to build the first school," said Joyce Harley, the coordinator of the Coalition for Our Children's Schools, a group of facilities advocates that is based in Trenton. "If it's done right, the first schools should be built in a year."

Garden State policymakers have worked on the school construction plan, believed to be the nation's largest, since a 1998 court order required New Jersey to improve facilities in 30 of its neediest districts as part of the Abbott v. Burke school funding lawsuit. ( "High Court in N.J. Ends Funding Suit," May 27, 1998.)

The Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act provides $6 billion to cover 100 percent of the state-approved costs of new schools and renovations in those largely urban districts.

Another $2.5 billion will pay for 40 percent of school construction costs in some 580 districts that are not part of the case. An additional $100 million will be earmarked for county vocational schools. The money will come from state-issued bonds.

Local communities are expected to contribute another $3.5 billion.

"Our program will enable every district in New Jersey... to give our children safe and secure classrooms," Gov. Whitman said as she signed the bill. "In the process, it will relieve pressure on the property tax for these projects."

Whitman Weighs In

The Republican governor vetoed an initial version of the bill in June, demanding several changes that were subsequently incorporated into a revised bill passed by the Senate later that month. The Assembly passed the retooled measure in a special one-day session July 13.

In spelling out her required changes, the governor erased a provision that gave lawmakers veto rights over building projects in the Abbott districts. She also added preschools to the list of facilities that could receive funding.

In addition, the governor called for six pilot projects that will incorporate school plans with local community-development efforts. For example, a town might build its municipal library on a school site.

And following a debate over who would run the construction projects, Mrs. Whitman chose the economic-development authority, which, among other responsibilities, will collect bid proposals and award contracts.

The agency manages hundreds of projects a year, including 397 worth $1.3 billion in 1999. Historically, however, school facilities have not been among them. That worries some school construction advocates.

"We are hoping the economic-development authority will be smart enough to include the districts in the process," said Ms. Harley, who coordinates advocacy efforts on behalf of the statewide coalition of business, education, government, and nonprofit organizations. "Districts, for example, can recommend people to do the work."

Beth E. Sztuk, the authority's deputy director, said the agency understands the task that lies ahead and is studying the experiences of other states that are involved in school construction.

"The reason we were chosen is that we are not a start-up. We have more than 100 people," she said. "We pride ourselves on being good at what we do."

Still, the agency plans to hire a consulting firm to study its new organizational needs, and eventually may add 40 or more new staff members.

State Concerns

A more immediate issue is the approval of facility plans by the state education department.

State officials had expected to complete preliminary reviews of plans from the 30 Abbott districts by the end of last month. Their decisions, which can be appealed, could start going out to districts by the end of this month, a spokesman for the education department said.

In the preliminary reviews, however, several districts have been asked to justify proposals for arts, music, and sports facilities, as well as science laboratories. Those queries have prompted some anxiety, especially in urban districts, about how state officials will ultimately make their decisions.

"It's a moving target, in which the state retains unfettered discretion," said David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs in the Abbott suit. To cut costs, the state might ignore local needs in lieu of "cookie- cutter models," he added.

But John Crosbie, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, said there was nothing unreasonable about the state's initial response to the districts.

Many of the items questioned were considered redundant by the review teams, he said. And some districts' plans might have been too ambitious, he added.

"Unlike some districts that want a blank check, that's not going to happen," Mr. Crosbie said. "There will be a critical review. These are dollars that are being 100 percent provided by taxpayers."

Vol. 19, Issue 43, Pages 23,29

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