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A new wrinkle in school district suit

Jersey City Board of Education adds state Schools Development Authority to lawsuit

The Jersey City Board of Education has added the states School Development Authority to a lawsuit stating the agency has not funded desperately needed construction and repairs to district buildings.

The Jersey City Board of Education has added the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA) to a lawsuit that alleges the state’s funding cuts to the district are unconstitutional.

This recent amendment to the lawsuit says that the state’s SDA has underfunded the district by approximately $1.4 billion toward previously approved construction and repairs.

A new defendant

The SDA is a state agency which fully funds construction and renovation of schools for the state’s former “Abbot Districts.”

These districts, which are now referred to as “SDA Districts,” were created in 1985 as a result of Abbott v. Burke, which ruled that public primary and secondary education in poor communities throughout the state were unconstitutionally substandard. The Abbott II ruling in 1990 ordered the state to fund the Abbott districts at the average level of the state’s wealthiest districts.

Currently, there are 31 districts, five of which are in Hudson County, including Jersey City, Hoboken, West New York, Union City, and Harrison.

According to the amended lawsuit, “The State is required to fully fund the cost of remediating the infrastructure and life cycle deficiencies that have been identified in the [SDA Districts] [and] fully fund the construction of any new classrooms needed to correct capacity deficiencies’ (153 N.J. at 524).”

According to the suit, although the Jersey City Board of Education submitted a Long Range Facilities Plan that included maintenance, remediation, and construction projects totaling roughly $1.4 billion as amended and approved by the New Jersey Department of Education in 2014, the district has received only $361 million in financing from the SDA. There are currently no SDA-funded projects under design and or construction in the Jersey City Board of Education district.

Aging infrastructure

According to the suit, these repairs, maintenance, and construction costs are necessary largely due to the age of the district’s schools: 21 percent of the schools are over 100 years old, and 50 percent of the schools are over 75 years old.

Due to the aging infrastructure, many of the schools are in disrepair and “require that immediate action be taken to ensure that district’s students are attending school in a safe and healthy environment that is not overcrowded,” according to the suit.

The suit states that not one of the 40 school buildings in the district can provide safe potable drinking water due to lead in the pipes so the Jersey City Board of Education is forced to purchase water from outside, private suppliers.

At least 10 schools need roof replacements, eight need window replacements, at least seven need their boilers replaced, and at least one needs its fire escape repaired or replaced. This does not include the numerous classrooms that need to be renovated, and new schools that need to be constructed.

According to the approved Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), the Department of Education (DOE) approved construction of 15 new schools, 12 new instructional buildings, and the purchase or lease of five new sites for construction.

While the lawsuit states the SDA is required to fully fund the construction and acquisition of these projects, former SDA CEO Charles McKenna testified in May 2018 that the SDA has no funds to begin new projects identified in the LRFP approved by the DOE.

According to the SDA website, the district has just $15.4 million in committed grants for projects.

According to the suit, the SDA’s failure to fund the maintenance, repairs, and construction of the district’s facilities has meant that the Jersey City Board of Education needed to use a portion of its instructional budget toward capital improvements.

The board has already spent funds to renovate two buildings, PS 20 and PS 31, to provide temporary early-childhood education facilities until the SDA funds the construction of new early-childhood education facilities.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Jersey City Board of Education, an unidentified student at PS 29, and his guardian, Shanna Givens.

The defendants are the State of New Jersey; the New Jersey Department of Education and its commissioner Lamont Repollet; the New Jersey Office of Management and Budget; the New Jersey Department of Treasury; State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio; the New Jersey Schools Development Authority; and the New Jersey School Development Authority’s Interim CEO Manuel Da Silva.

For updates on this and other stories keep checking www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Marilyn Baer can be reached at Marilynb@hudsonreporter.com.

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