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NJ LEGISLATURE PASSES SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION REFORM, BUT WITHOUT FUNDING

Just before recessing for the summer, State lawmakers approved legislation to reform the school construction program, but failed to provide the additional funding needed to restart numerous school construction projects in urban and other communities.

The legislation -- Senate Bill 2796 and Assembly Bill 4336 -- implements key recommendations made by Governor Jon Corzine’s Working Group on School Construction for improving the governance, operations and accountability of the State School Corporation (SCC). The legislation does not, however, authorize the $3.25 billion in bond financing for already approved school construction projects called for by the Working Group in September 2006. The legislation now heads to the Governor’s desk for his consideration.

In April, ELC, on behalf of the school children in the urban districts, asked the NJ Supreme Court to set a deadline of June 30th for the Legislature to approve additional construction funding. On May 9th, the Court denied the request as "premature," stating its "assumption" that the Legislature would take action to provide more construction funds "in the context of the Fiscal Year 2008 Budget" and consistent with the State’s constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient education" to urban children.

As ELC explained in testimony on the legislation,  there are currently hundreds of stalled school construction projects across the state, and the Working Group cited an "immediate" need for $3.25 billion to begin addressing the backlog. Both Abbott districts and other districts are affected by the Legislature’s failure to secure school construction funds.

ELC also pointed out that the legislation failed to address two major reforms called for by the Working Group. First, it does not include a process to set priorities for projects in suburban, middle income and other districts. In the past, these districts could obtain State grants to support facilities projects on a "first come, first served" basis, leaving out many districts with the most acute facilities needs. The Working Group recommended that school construction funds for projects in districts other than the urban districts should be "prioritized based on objective criteria that align the State’s public policy and educational objectives."

Second, the legislation contains no mechanism for funding facilities used by non-profit community preschool providers in Abbott districts. Universal pre-school is constitutionally mandated in Abbott districts and non-profit community providers are an essential element of ensuring that young children receive the education that they are entitled to. These non-profit community providers currently serve 65% of the 42,000 Abbott preschoolers enrolled in the program, yet there is no program in place to assist these providers with improving or expanding their facilities.

While the Legislature’s approval of reforms to the school construction program is long overdue, the lack of funding means further delay and increased costs for numerous projects, and continued hardship for thousands of students and teachers in unsafe, overcrowded and inadequate school buildings.

ELC, along with Building our Children’s Future, the Our Children/Our Schools Campaign, and other concerned citizens and organizations will continue to press the Legislature to promptly follow through on its commitment and constitutional obligation to New Jersey’s public school children.

Prepared: June 27, 2007