REPORT SHOWS OVER ONE-THIRD OF NJ URBAN STUDENTS IN UNFIT, DILAPIDATED SCHOOL BUILDINGS
NJDOE Calls Need “Enormous” But Fails To Publicize Report
December 16, 2013
An unpublished report by the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) shows at least one-third of students in urban public schools, or over 93,000 students, attend school in buildings that fail to meet basic health, safety and educational suitability standards. The Department’s report characterizes the need to replace and upgrade urban school buildings as "enormous."
These findings are contained in the 2013 Educational Facility Needs Assessment and Educational Prioritization of School Facilities Projects in SDA districts. The report is dated June 10, 2013, and was prepared by Susan Kutner, a facilities planner in the NJDOE Office of School Facilities.
Under state law, the NJDOE must periodically assess the condition of all buildings in the 31 urban districts classified as “SDA districts” and establish a ranking of those schools that have priority for renovation or replacement though the State’s school construction program.
Although required by law and finished last June, the report was never publicly released by State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, who has not shared the report with SDA district officials or legislators. Education Law Center recently obtained the report through a request under the NJ Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
Under the landmark Abbott v. Burke rulings, the NJDOE and the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA) must fully fund and implement all improvements needed in SDA district school buildings to ensure students are educated in facilities that are safe and adequate to deliver New Jersey’s rigorous academic standards and in classes of reasonable size.
The report’s findings include the following:
- SDA districts continue to show "enormous need" to "address overcrowding and educational adequacy;"
- 93,592, or 34.5%, of urban students attend school in buildings classified as "questionable;" that is, unrenovated buildings over 100 years old, unrenovated buildings over 60 years old that don't meet state standards for square footage or classroom size, or seriously overcrowded buildings;
- 160 urban schools housing 109,714 students provide less space than the minimum allowed by the State under the "Facilities Efficiency Standards;"
- an additional 15,423 seats in preschool-8th grade schools and 2,069 seats in high schools are immediately needed to address overcrowding.
In an odd choice, the NJDOE in the report classified any school currently listed by the SDA as eligible for renovation, replacement or major capital maintenance as "existing," whether or not the SDA has put in place any plan or timetable to begin construction. This means, for example, that NJDOE categorizes Trenton Central, Camden and Orange High Schools, and numerous other school buildings, as adequate even though the buildings are clearly unsafe and unfit for teaching and learning. In this way, the NJDOE seriously underestimates the need for facilities improvements in the SDA districts.
The report is also based on data from Long Range Facilities Plans (LRFP) submitted by SDA districts in 2005-07. These district plans are now well out-of-date and, by law, should have been updated over a year ago. ELC recently sent a demand to Commissioner Cerf that he promptly direct districts to file updated LRFPs.
"It is hard to fathom how Commissioner Cerf can justify withholding from parents, concerned citizens and legislators crucial information about the health, safety and suitability of schools that thousands of urban students attend every day," said David G. Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. "Even worse, this information is required by law to determine which schools are most in need of renovation or replacement."
ELC Senior Attorney Elizabeth Athos noted the report's serious flaws resulting from the use of outdated district plans and the exclusion of deteriorated buildings such as Trenton and Camden High Schools simply because the buildings appear on one of the SDA lists of possible construction projects.
"There is no basis for labeling building projects as ‘existing’ where there is no clear timeframe to start construction or renovation in the near future," said Ms. Athos. "The SDA has a terrible record when it comes to starting new construction in urban school districts over the past four years. Just because the school is on an SDA list means nothing to students in Camden, Trenton, Newark, Orange and other districts, where they are forced to endure unsafe and unfit conditions with no real prospect for improvement any time soon."
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