Overcrowded and dilapidated old schools in New Jersey’s poorest districts would be a priority for new construction using federal COVID-19 relief funds, Republican candidate for governor Jack Ciattarelli said Thursday.
Injecting potential billions of dollars into so-called SDA districts would represent a financial leap forward for a state construction agency that has idled for years without a funding plan as political leaders wrangled over its fate after a scandal of patronage.
As these leaders plan to overhaul the Schools Development Authority, thousands of children are going every day to poorly ventilated, ruined, leaky schools or without running clean water.
Noting that Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to spend several billion dollars in US bailout money, Ciattarelli said his “number one priority” with these funds “would be involved in all of this Schools Development Authority work.” .
“This is the first place we should go with all of those billions,” Ciattarelli said in a virtual meeting Thursday with the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group Editorial Board. “So here we have a golden opportunity to fix the problem.”
The authority is still busy with construction but has no funding for new projects.
When Murphy took office nearly four years ago, his hand-picked leader of authority was tasked with securing a new round of loans to fulfill his constitutional mandate to build schools in communities historically in low income like Asbury Park, Camden, Garfield, Newark and Paterson. .
But that mission was derailed by a political patronage scandal uncovered by reports from the Network’s Trenton office, triggering independent investigations and calls for reform.
Murphy and legislative leaders have said they intend to reshape the authority, but have not given any details or indicated how the agency, in whatever form, will be funded.
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Their decision is consequential. Not only is the authority building new schools in poor areas, it is also giving grants to hundreds of other districts in the state for emergency repairs.
And the debt from the authority’s latest round of borrowing costs taxpayers about $ 1 billion a year, so using COVID federal funds could ease the state’s debt burden.
The authority did not respond to a message seeking comment on Ciattarelli’s plan.
Some SDA districts have received federal COVID relief funding to improve school ventilation systems, but “it’s a short-term fix,” Millville Superintendent Tony Trongone said this summer.
“We depend on the state and the SDA,” he said at the time.
School leaders and lawyers said the state had failed to meet its legal obligations, with hundreds of documented needs, including “leaky roofs, crumbling facades and heating, fire safety and ‘other basic systems inadequate,’ according to court documents.
They have asked the state’s Supreme Court to intervene, but the court has yet to decide whether the state should spend more money on construction and repairs.
Ciattarelli said he would use federal money to back and forth over the larger issue of school funding in New Jersey, which he proposed overhauling to make it “flatter” and more just for the taxpayers who pay for public education.
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State aid that is distributed to some 600 public school districts each year is separate from funding to support the Schools Development Authority and the 31 districts it covers.
By sending federal relief funds to build schools, Ciattarelli said it would have an added benefit.
“Not only is this fair to students in the communities,” he said, “it would put middle-class New Jersey residents to work.”
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter at the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering the Governor of New Jersey and the political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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