The Christie administration failed to release a report showing that most needy school districts have inadequate classroom space to serve students, and some education advocates are calling it a cover up designed to defraud litigants in landmark education lawsuits.
A school facilities needs assessment completed by the NJ Department of Education (DOE), found that two-thirds of the 31 low-income, urban SDA districts, that were included in the state Supreme Court’s series of Abbott decisions do not have adequate space to meet student needs.
In a legal battle stretching about 30 years, the Abbott vs. Burke court decisions have ensured greater state funding for certain districts as a way of addressing disparities between poor urban areas and the wealthier suburbs.
Although the report was completed in May 2016, it was not released until October 2017, despite repeated requests from Education Law Center (ELC).
The report, “Educational Facilities Needs Assessment and Prioritization of School Facilities Projects for SDA Districts,” (EFNA) analyzes critical space deficiencies in terms of capacity and compliance with Facilities Efficiency Standards (FES), which represent the instructional and administrative spaces that are educationally necessary to support student achievement of NJ curriculum standards.
Compliance with the FES standards indicates whether a building has appropriate specialized classrooms, such as art and music rooms.
When enrollments grow, districts often sacrifice specialized classrooms to meet capacity needs, which can result in educational adequacy deficiencies.
The Abbott designation itself was effectively eliminated a few years ago when a new school funding formula was instituted, but for each SDA district, enrollment trends, building capacity and square feet per student were assessed by FES grade group (Pre-K, K-5, 6-8, 9-12).
“Although they only represent about 5 percent of all school districts in New Jersey, SDA districts educate nearly 20 percent of the state’s students,” said Lisa McCormick, a vocal advocate for public education. “By hiding evidence that these children require more space, Gov. Chris Christie cheated them and he should be sanctioned by the court.”
McCormick said the report identified Elizabeth, Passaic, Paterson and Union City — with capacity and square footage deficiencies — as having the worst overcrowding.
Some of the specific findings in the report include:
- 22 of the 31 SDA districts have deficient capacity and/or provide less square feet per student than prescribed in the FES for one or more grade groups;
- 19 districts were found to have inadequate capacity based on existing enrollments in a total of 33 grade groups;
- Elizabeth and Passaic have among the worst capacity and square footage deficiencies in all grade groups;
- Paterson and Union City have among the worst capacity and square footage deficiencies in two grade groups.
The DOE is required to conduct this analysis every five years under the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act, which established New Jersey’s current school construction program. The purpose is to assess major construction projects across all 31 SDA districts based on educational need.
Now that the needs assessment has been completed after years of delay, the law requires the SDA and the DOE, working in conjunction with the SDA districts, to develop a statewide strategic plan establishing the sequencing of school facilities projects based on both the priority rankings in the needs assessment and construction considerations identified by the SDA. This plan then serves as the basis for determining the order in which projects move forward in the construction process.
However, the construction program – launched in 2000 to comply with a 1998 NJ Supreme Court order to address unsafe and overcrowded conditions in the 31 Abbott school districts – is out of funding to pay for new projects. According to budget documents issued by the SDA, nearly all of the bonding authority allocated by the Legislature in 2008 has been spent or committed. Without additional funding, no projects will advance.
According to Jerell Blakeley, campaign organizer with the NJ Work Environment Council, and coordinator of the Healthy Schools Now campaign, “The report makes clear the enormous unmet needs in the SDA districts, and the continued failure of the current administration to address overcrowding and educational adequacy. We call on the new Governor and Legislature to make additional funding for school facilities a priority when they take office in January.”
“The current administration has dragged its feet on school facilities, forcing unnecessary litigation about basic elements of the school construction program and delaying the preparation and release of the EFNA,” said Theresa Luhm, ELC attorney. “But we expect that the new administration will see this program as a sound investment for both our children’s futures and for our workforce.”
Critics noted that Christie forced a $300 million renovation of the Statehouse through various channels, by-passing legislators who tried to block the lavish spending spree, but he kept school expansion needs a secret despite court orders that make the administration responsible for educational facilities.
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