Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Education Law Center Ignores Budget Crisis, Common Sense, Demands More Money for the Abbotts

Sciarra & Tractenberg, LLP, the law firm that poses as a social justice organization called "the Education Law Center," is threatening to sue the state if it doesn't give the Abbott districts billions more.

This time the Education Law Center is demanding that the state borrow billions in order to pay 100% of the costs of school repair and construction in the Abbott (SDA) districts.

Under the Abbott rulings, public school students in the SDA districts [ie, Abbott districts] are constitutionally entitled to attend school in facilities that are safe, not overcrowded and educationally adequate. In 1998 (Abbott V), 2000 (Abbott VII) and 2005 (Abbott XIV), the Supreme Court reaffirmed the State’s responsibility to fully fund all of the facilities improvements in the state’s low wealth, high poverty urban districts to address decades of disrepair and neglect. 
In establishing the school construction program, the Legislature also provided funding, in the form of grants, to all other school districts, referred to as “Regular Operating Districts” (RODs). ELC strongly urges the Legislature to provide additional funds not only to rebuild urban schools, but also to remediate outdated and dilapidated schools elsewhere, especially in RODs serving growing numbers of poor students and students with special needs. 
The Legislature approved the last round of funding, totaling $3.9 billion, for the school construction program in 2008. At that time, $2.9 billion of bonding authority was allocated to SDA districts and $1 billion to RODs.

“While numerous major projects and emergent repairs were completed with the 2008 funding round, that funding is now depleted,” said ELC Attorney Theresa Luhm. “In 2011, the SDA issued a strategic plan with a list of 110 major capital projects in the SDA districts that it said comprised the ‘highest priority needs of the state,’ but only 40 of those projects have been advanced. In addition, the SDA districts recently completed amendments to their Long-Range Facilities Plans, identifying hundreds of additional projects that the state must prioritize and address.”

The Education Law Center is Fighting for Monopolistic Aid Privileges for an 1980s-Era List of Poorest Districts That is Divorced from Contemporary Economic Conditions

The list of Abbott districts was created in the mid-1980s and intentionally excluded equally poor suburban and rural districts.  The Abbott list was not representative of New Jersey's poorest districts even in the 1980s but since then it has become even more unfair as a class of districts getting special financial privileges. 

Jersey City, Harrison, Vineland, Long Branch, Asbury Park, and Neptune have improved economically and become middle-resource or lower-middle resource and could certainly pay for more than 0% of school construction. Hoboken has become New Jersey's wealthiest school district, with $70,000 in Local Fair Share per Student. Meanwhile, Pemberton and Phillipsburg are 44% and 53% FRL-eligible respectively, meaning that they are not really "high poverty" either relative to numerous non-Abbotts.

Thus, the Education Law Center claim "In 1998 (Abbott V), 2000 (Abbott VII) and 2005 (Abbott XIV),the Supreme Court reaffirmed the State’s responsibility to fully fund all of the facilities improvements in the state’s low wealth, high poverty urban districts" is a misleading statement since many of the Abbott districts are neither high poverty nor urban nor tax-base poor.

Meanwhile, numerous non-Abbotts have become poorer demographically and economically and not gained aid in proportion to their increased aids. At one extreme is Freehold Boro, where 1,700 students must learn in schools built for 1,100.

Freehold Boro, a non-Abbott, has been forced to sacrifice its library for classrooms. In Freehold Boro the former library has been divided into seven miniature classrooms separated only by cubicle dividers.

Since Freehold Boro is not an Abbott the Education Law Center disregards its existence and since education money is zero-sum, any additional money for the Abbotts would be taken away from Freehold Boro.

The Education Law Center pretends that the Abbotts are the only districts with aging facilities in need of repair, but this is false.  Belleville, another poor non-Abbott, alone needs $65-85 million in repairs.  Since Belleville's local tax levy is only $36 million, it is hard to imagine how Belleville could pay for its repairs without significant state aid.

The Education Law Center pays lip service to the needs of non-Abbotts. The "ELC strongly urges the Legislature to provide additional funds not only to rebuild urban schools, but also to remediate outdated and dilapidated schools elsewhere, especially in RODs serving growing numbers of poor students and students with special needs," but the Education Law Center specific demands focus on the Abbotts and the ELC does not threaten the state with a lawsuit over non-Abbotts like it does for the Abbotts, "if such [additional construction money for the Abbotts] is not forthcoming, we will have no alternative but to seek appropriate judicial relief."

The Lowest Tax-Resource Districts in New Jersey based on Local Fair Share per Student
DistrictLFS / StudentDistrictLFS / Student
LINDENWOLD BORO$4,908PHILLIPSBURG (has students from other districts, NA)

Ignorance of New Jersey's Debt Crisis

The Education Law Center's Stance on NJ's Budget Crisis

Even if the Abbott list were representative of New Jersey's poorest districts, the problem with the Education Law Center's stance is that New Jersey hasn't recovered from the Great Recession and is drowning in debt. Numerous budget groups that are based outside of New Jersey and have no reason to disparage New Jersey in particular, list New Jersey as the most or one of the most indebted states in America. Taking pension obligations into consideration, Truth in Accounting gives New Jersey's debt at over $50,000 per taxpayer.

Governing Magazine places New Jersey as the country's second most indebted state per capita, after Connecticut.

It is not to score political points that Moody's classes New Jersey's debt as one of the two riskiest in the United States, along with Illinois.

The State of New Jersey, even under Jon Corzine, admitted that its debt is growing more rapidly than the country's as a whole, as the Corzine Administration admitted in the Citizens Guide to the Budget in 2008.

The Education Law Center also appears to be deeply ignorant of how much money the state is already spending on school construction debt and how those growing debt payments are preventing the state from increasing Pre-K and K-12 aid. (Source, Citizens Budget Guides)

Indeed, these school construction debt payments are projected to significantly increase in the next few years and then fall to a level that is still higher than the state was paying in 2014.

Source: http://www.nj.gov/treasury/pdf/DebtReportFY2014.pdf

NJ's state-funded school construction has almost entirely gone to the Abbotts. The skew of state construction money for Abbott districts is even greater than the skew of K-12 operating aid to the Abbotts (although not as intense as the skew of Pre-K money to the Abbotts.)

When the Abbott districts have decrepit facilities the state should assist them in repairs or new facilities, but the NJ Supreme Court's requirement that the state pay 100% of the costs in the Abbotts and nothing for non-Abbotts is completely unfair.

(It's hypocritical of the Education Law Center, which goes berserk when the "constitutional rights" of children in Hoboken are allegedly violated, to disregard the the constitutional rights of New Jersey taxpayers, who are supposed to have the authority to approve debt issuance through the Debt Limitation Clause of the NJ Constitution. (See the Lonegan cases))

Fraud, Exorbitant Costs

The state itself has a long record of documenting fraud and abuse in Abbott district construction projects that exceed normal government waste and are directly related to the fact that the Abbott districts get these projects for "free."

An inquiry initiated on February 14, 2005 by the New Jersey Office of the Inspector General has revealed that the SCC as currently structured and constituted suffers from a wide range of internal weaknesses that not only threaten to defeat its core mission, but also make the agency vulnerable to is management, fiscal malfeasance, conflicts of interest and waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars. ...
The SCC has minimal guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable site for a school and generally accedes to sites submitted by local school authorities. While some Abbott districts have provided suitable sites, many have opted for locations that must be acquired at substantial cost. To date, the SCC has committed to or paid approximately $328.8 million for the acquisition of sites and associated costs, including relocation costs, for certain Abbott district schools. One particularly egregious aspect of this cost picture is the fact that more than $67 million has been paid by the SCC to local governmental units for the acquisition of school sites on land that is already publicly owned in their communities. In addition, sites selected by local districts often include abandoned properties and the funds used to purchase them as a school construction site are used to pay back taxes owed to the municipality by delinquent owners.

Even when there is not outright fraud non-Abbott New Jerseyans can object because so often state-funded Abbott school buildings are far above what is educationally necessary and superior what even the most affluent districts have, let alone working class and poor non-Abbotts.

This is New Brunswick's new $180 million, state-funded "Taj Mahal" high school:

There are just four students sitting in a New Brunswick High School classroom, dressed in toques and white jackets. Today, they will be making shrimp bisque. Not in the school cafeteria or a teachers' lounge, but through the swinging doors of a full, restaurant-style kitchen, designed by a professional chef.

It's the school facilities version of "bling." As he walks through the deep rows of gleaming utensils and baking equipment filled with leftover cream puffs and ├ęclairs, the school's interim principal, James Christman, beams. "A lot of the kids, even if they get into the finest restaurants, won't find a facility like this," he says. 
This is what cooking class looks like at the new, $180 million public high school in New Brunswick, built by the state's Schools Development Authority. If you prefer ballet, check out the dance studio with wooden barres and walls full of mirrors. Students can produce their own news shows in a broadcast studio and edit them on dozens of high-speed Macintosh computers. If they have any interest in lighting and sound design, they can scale a winding staircase up to a ceiling catwalk that spans an entire room, adjusting computerized lights while chatting on wireless microphones. And that's just practice for the Broadway-style theater with orchestra pit.

Many may find it hard to believe "Taj Mahal" schools like this -- paid for by state taxpayers -- exist in New Jersey. Though all the glitz may not be reflected in better graduation rates, they are the schools of every district's dreams. Meanwhile, hundreds of other students promised new schools in places such as Trenton, Camden and Phillipsburg have spent decades waiting -- in crumbling buildings under steady leaks and falling ceilings, or in multiplying trailers outside overcrowded schools. Not waiting for a fancy school. Waiting for a functional building.
Neptune Township's aquatic center is a massive, full-blown eight lane pool. The Neptune Township Aquatic Center is just some of $300 million in state-funded construction projects Neptune Township has gotten.

Yes, believe it or not, Neptune's Aquatic Center cost $6,034,801 and was state-funded

Billions for an Obsolete List

Again, the Education Law Center has become a reactionary, budgetarily insane cult of big spending. It ignores the continuum of need in New Jersey to focus on what is almost an all-or-nothing approach to state aid for the Abbotts. It ignores New Jersey's dangerous indebtedness, outmigration, and economic stagnation. It ignores the obsolescence of the Abbott list and hurts poor children whom it purports to help. It ignores that Abbott funding has transcended being about "equity" and become privilege.

The Education Law Center was founded to correct New Jersey's savage inequalities. Now it fights to exacerbate them.

The Education Law Center is just a law firm.  Expect no sense of justice from it for anyone except its clients.  

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