After taking nearly a year to review 429 applications for so-called “emergent” (urgently needed) facilities repairs submitted by 23 former Abbott districts, the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) has approved state funding for only 15, or 5%, of the repairs.
Education Law Center and the Healthy Schools Now (HSN) coalition of the NJ Work Environment Council are calling on State Education Commissioner Kimberly Harrington to publicly explain why so many of the repair projects were denied.
ELC and HSN also note that, even for the 15 projects given the go-ahead, the NJDOE has yet to provide any timeframe for undertaking and completing the repairs.
In July 2016, the NJDOE and the Schools Development Authority (SDA) asked the former Abbott districts, now called “SDA districts,” to submit requests for emergency health and safety repair projects under an initiative called the “Potential Emergent Projects Program” (PEPP). In response, the districts submitted extensive lists of needed repairs and hazardous conditions for State review.
An emergent project is a capital project necessary to address a building condition that causes imminent peril to the health and safety of students and staff, and that must be alleviated on an expedited basis. Under a 1998 NJ Supreme Court order, the State is required to fully fund all capital projects and improvements in the SDA districts to make buildings safe, relieve overcrowding, and ensure educational adequacy.
In response to the 2016 PEPP, 23 of the 31 SDA districts submitted a total of 429 project applications. The repair requests included significant unsafe, unhealthy and dangerous conditions: leaky roofs; crumbing facades; and inadequate heating, fire safety and other basic systems.
Of the 429 district applications, the DOE approved only 15 repair projects in just four of the 23 districts. Eleven of the projects are in Newark, two in Plainfield, and one each in Camden and Bridgeton.
The NJDOE rejected the remaining 414 applications, characterizing them as “routine or required maintenance” and concluding they are not eligible for state funding.
“It is outrageous that the State took so long to make the determinations and that so few projects were selected when the conditions detailed in the applications impact the health, safety and well-being of thousands of students, teachers and other staff every day,” said Jerell Blakeley, HSN Campaign Organizer. “Commissioner Harrington needs to explain how a failing roof in one school qualifies as an emergent project, but in another it does not.”
Under state law, the NJDOE is required to promptly inspect the buildings and certify if an emergent condition exists. The agency must then review and approve the repair project on an “expedited basis.” Once the NJDOE approves the project and determines preliminary costs, the SDA must do the repair work as quickly as possible.
“Equally outrageous is how long the State took to review and make decisions on these applications. Even worse, there still is no timeline for completing the small number of repair projects approved by the State.” said ELC attorney Theresa Luhm. “We’re calling on the Commissioner to publicly explain why the process took so long and when parents, students and teachers can expect the emergent repairs to be completed.”