TRENTON – Senators Joseph V. Doria and Shirley K. Turner introduced legislation last week that would eliminate the embattled Schools Construction Corporation (SCC) and replace it with an independent authority within the Department of the Treasury to handle school construction finances.
“The SCC is broken beyond repair. We need to start anew and use the lessons we’ve learned from past mistakes to make the New Jersey Schools Development Authority the model for school construction programs,” said Senator Doria, D-Hudson and Vice Chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Under the bill, the SCC would be abolished and replaced by the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (NJSDA). The NJSDA would be in, but not of, the Department of the Treasury and act as an independent body. All references to the SCC made in any law, rule, regulation, order, contract, document or judicial proceeding would automatically be changed to refer to the NJSDA.
Senator Turner said that the impetus for the bill was the recommendations made by the Interagency Working Group on School Construction to improve the operation and management of the State’s school construction efforts.
“The recommendations offered in the Working Group’s report make a lot of sense. I have long said that there was a distinct lack of oversight when it came to the SCC and it is clear that if the State wanted to continue to build new schools, that these changes would be critical before we could spend another dime,” added Senator Turner, D-Mercer and Chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Senator Doria noted that one of the major reforms under his bill would be the establishment of a priority list for school facilities projects needed in the Abbott districts. This priority list would be developed on a district-by-district basis as well as on a statewide basis.
Under the bill, the new authority would only construct schools for the Abbott districts. Non-Abbotts districts would still be able to finance school construction projects through the NJSDA, but would manage the construction of the buildings on their own.
“It’s clear that we need to approach the State’s school construction needs in a more logical manner and focus the NJSDA on building new schools in the Abbott districts while providing financial support to the rest of our communities,” explained Senator Doria.
Currently the SCC must manage the construction of school projects in all districts either receiving state aid above 55% or labeled as Level II districts under NJQSAC. All other districts have the option to have the SCC manage their projects. Projects currently approved by the SCC and the Commissioner of Education would be grandfathered out of this provision.
The bill also changes how land for new school construction would be acquired by the NJSDA. Abbott districts would be required to complete an inventory of all district- and municipal-owned land located in the municipality. If none of those properties were suitable for the project, then a six month development moratorium would be placed on the preferred site so that developers wouldn’t be able to increase the value of the land before it is purchased.
“Land acquisition has been a huge problem for the SCC and one of the major causes of the huge price tags on the schools that have already been built. If we can better control land prices, we can get more of these schools built,” said Senator Turner.
The new Authority would consist of the Treasurer, the Commissioners of Education and Community Affairs, the executive director of the Economic Development Authority and 11 public members named by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. The EDA would continue to provide the financing for the projects.
The bill is currently awaiting a hearing before the Senate Education Committee. The Senate is expected to move on the bill before recessing for the summer.