Questions are mounting after the price tag to fix Newark public schools more than doubled in the past five months from $1 billion to $2.5 billion, a mushrooming bill that the city’s Superintendent says city residents will have to pay.
But elected officials and experts say the Superintendent shouldn’t be looking to city residents at all.
The Newark public schools should “go after” the New Jersey Department of Education and the School Development Authority “instead of shifting the burden to local taxpayers and we will support them if they do so,” said Education Law Center senior attorney Theresa Luhm. “This situation speaks to the urgent need for the legislature to put additional money into the school construction program in this year’s budget.”
The School Development Authority “fell woefully short on what was anticipated and no real explanation was given to voters across the state,” said Mayor Ras Baraka when asked about the superintendent’s plans. “The SDA owes us more schools.”
Some are questioning not just whether the city taxpayers should be on the hook, but how the superintendent is going about his ideas for addressing facilities needs. For one, city officials have noted the superintendent’s lack of communication.
Leon “hasn’t shared with me any intention to initiate a $2 billion repair reject,” Baraka said in a statement. “But if he’s considering it, there obviously would have to be a comprehensive discussion with the community and elected officials before anything was put in place toward a ballet vote.”
Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., who chairs the city council’s education committee and pressed the superintendent on the issue last month, told TAPinto Newark in a May 30 interview it “didn’t seem the district was ready” to seek a bond referendum.
Ramos said he also had asked about the district’s fight to reclaim school properties – the State Street School and the Maple Avenue School building — both of which had been unloaded by prior district administrations.
“I also wanted to know why are you guys fighting to get some of these properties back that three-four years ago everybody agreed we needed to unload because there’s no purpose for them?” he said. “And now you’re spending God-knows-what in attorney fees and the Housing Authority is spending money defending itself in the process, which is public money.”
The district has spent more than $1 million in legal fees to get back two of the buildings it sold. In recent months, it has bought back one of those buildings–a tiny dilapidated facility that can’t fit any schools–for an undisclosed amount.
On Sunday, the state’s largest newspaper, the Star Ledger, piled on with a headline that read: “Has Newark’s Superintendent Lost His Mind?”
In an editorial on Sunday, the paper took León to task for the proposal to seek directly from local taxpayers funding that has typically been gotten from state agencies.
“This is an obligation that New Jersey’s Supreme Court has quite clearly laid at the feet of state taxpayers,” the Star-Ledger Editorial Board wrote. “Does León not know that? Why would he ask Newark locals, among the neediest people in the state, to pay this bill?”
A request for comment on the newspaper’s opinion piece sent to León and school district spokesperson Nancy Deering was not returned.
At the school board’s business meeting on May 23, Business Administrator Valerie Wilson said the average school building in Newark is 98 years old.
“We have asbestos. We have lead paint,” Wilson told the Board of Education. “We also have lead in our pipes, as you are aware, so all of those things have to be addressed before you can do some of the other kinds of things you want to do.”
Painting and cosmetic issues, she said, cannot be addressed until the health and safety issues are addressed. The “facilities condition assessment,” Wilson said, will tell the condition of all areas in school buildings.
“Construction materials are very volatile in pricing, so they’re going to change, but we would say that we believe that estimate will be somewhere in the neighborhood of just about $2.5 billion to bring all of our schools to where they need to be in terms of code,” Wilson said.
In March, Marc Pfeiffer, senior policy fellow at Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said of a then $1 billion bond plan that “no other school district has done anything near that, “It will likely be the largest local government or public school bond in New Jersey if it were to be issued at a billion dollars,” Pfeiffer said at the time.
In past years, while under state control, the district also secured monies for construction through the city government, which in 2017 issued a $30.5 million bond for school improvements. No longer under state control, Wilson said, the district would have to issue its own bonds.
And that, under state law, requires voter approval by referendum. The school business administrator stressed that’s not something the district plans to seek in the immediate future.
“I don’t want people to panic and say, ‘Oh, she said we’re going to bond,’” Wilson told the school board. “But that is the only way that a capital expenditure of the size that we need is going to be funded. We do not have it in the operating budget, even if we were to be fully funded.”