Joint Public Schools Chair Says ‘Worthy Projects Shouldn’t Be Hampered by Managerial Mistakes’
TRENTON – Senator Ronald L. Rice, D-Essex, the Chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools, issued the following statement today regarding the report issued by the Governor’s Working Group on School Construction on needed reforms to the State’s embattled School Construction Corporation (SCC):
“While I support in concept many of the reform recommendations made by the Governor’s Working Group, I am also very concerned that worthy school construction projects aren’t dragged down by the problems at the SCC.
“No one can deny that the SCC is an organization in crisis. Managerial mistakes, and those mistakes made by the former Administration, have created a $300 million to $400 million shortfall, just to finish projects already begun by the organization. But the State has an obligation to meet the educational needs of our residents, and part and parcel with that comes the need for adequate school facilities.
“I have no problem with restructuring an organization that has essentially become defunct. But we need to do everything in our power to get projects going now, to give children the educational opportunities they deserve.
“I’ve long said that local districts should have more input into the school construction process, but I think that we have to ensure that local municipalities will not be writing checks to further their school construction needs. Given the property tax burden already imposed on our State’s taxpayers, requiring municipalities to pick up the tab for the failures of the SCC will hurt those struggling to meet the high cost of living in the Garden State.
“I’m also concerned that requiring municipalities to donate land for school construction purposes will put local officials, especially in our cities, where open space is nearly exhausted, in the position of imposing eminent domain without the State’s backing. Eminent Domain remains a controversial municipal tool that has been panned for the abuses perpetrated under the program, and we should be trying to restrict its usage, not encourage it.
“And I have very serious reservations about halting current projects. There are 59 school construction projects that are currently in limbo, and will be reprioritized based on how they fit the educational needs of the State. However, there are an additional 78 projects that are ready to begin today, which will vastly improve the educational landscape in New Jersey. For example, in Newark, there are three projects in the East Ward and one in the North Ward that I’ve been fighting for quite some time to get off the ground, and construction could begin as early as tomorrow with the proper sign-off. Delaying these projects beyond the current construction year will cost more in the long-run, as construction costs will increase beyond the projected estimates. We need to begin this work as soon as possible.
“I have supported efforts to enhance our State’s mental health programs and realize the promise of stem cells, because, despite the costs, they are the right thing to do. My fellow legislators need to recognize that putting the dollars in place to make solvent the State’s school construction efforts falls into this category of costly, yet worthy, programs. If we do not act fast, the costs of school construction will continue to rise, and the State will find itself with an increasingly deeper hole to dig itself from.
“I have called a March 31 meeting of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools so that Administration officials can begin to answer some of the questions I, and many of my committee members, will have about the transitioning school construction obligation. Time is of the essence, and we must act today, to ensure a brighter tomorrow for our State’s students.”