Friday, June 16, 2006

Abbott Woes Detailed

In the face of hardening attitudes toward Abbott districts, Plainfielders will have to organize and fight to get badly-needed new schools, officials said Thursday (June 15, 2006).

Joan Ponessa of the Education Law Center gave details of the Abbott school construction history and present situation, followed by remarks from Assemblyman Jerry Green, Schools Superintendent Paula Howard and school board member Vickey Sheppard. The forum was organized by the New Democrats of Plainfield and took place at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield, with sponsorship by the church’s Social justice Committee.

As part of a $7.3 billion program to improve educational facilities in the state’s 31 poorest districts, Plainfield was to receive $185 million in new construction or repairs through the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp. But after an investigation last year uncovered waste and mismanagement in the corporation, the state halted all projects, leaving about 200 in limbo.

In Plainfield, the worst blow was a stalled middle school that had already received numerous layers of approval and was in the stage of property acquisition. Its centerpiece was a large city-owned tract on South Second Street.Ponessa gave what she called some “cold, hard facts” about the whole program that promised better facilities at no cost to the 31 Abbott districts.

The plan began after a 1990 New Jersey Supreme Court decision that proper facilities were part of a “thorough and efficient” education. But it never moved into high gear until former Gov. Jim McGreevey signed an order in 2002 creating the Schools Construction Corporation. After its collapse, Acting Gov. Richard Codey ordered a review and Gov. Jon Corzine appointed a Governor’s Working Group to recommend reforms. The group’s final report to Corzine is due in August.

Meanwhile, the Education Law Center is working to get more funding for school construction projects, but districts will have to convince legislators to support their particular projects.Ponessa said there was never enough money for all the proposed projects. Over the years, new needs have come up in the Abbott districts‘ aging schools, construction costs have risen dramatically and a building boom in China is making steel and concrete scarcer here.

She said the state legislators assumed most of the work would be renovations, but old schools beyond repair had to be replaced. And notions that the work could be done in five years were unrealistic, as it was more likely to take 20 years. The “very, very slow process” of reviewing and approving work in each district also resulted in a backlog of 24 districts for which the state needed more information.

“Plainfield is in this group,” Ponessa said.

One very sticky problem in planning for new or expanded schools is demographics, or projecting enrollment numbers five years into the future. Howard said enrollment figures are usually calculated on local hospital births, but 50 percent of students in Plainfield today were born in other countries.

Issues for the NJSCC boiled down to deciding which districts had the most need, in terms of health and safety in schools, bringing preschool up to 90 percent participation and overcrowding, Ponessa said.“I can’t tell you how difficult this will be,“ she said.

The balance is to get a process fair to taxpayers of the state and to remove “politics or other outside influences” from the process, she said.

Howard said the district’s priorities are a second high school to alleviate overcrowding and a new middle school. Just this week, the district celebrated receiving approval to go ahead with a $14 million new Emerson School on the site of the old one. Emerson students have been housed in a “swing school” on West Front Street while awaiting state approval for their new school. Expansions at Cook and Woodland schools are in the design phase at NJSCC.

Green said the school district may not get its “wish list,” but he said the whole community must join in support of the most-needed improvements. Green said Abbott districts may have to come up with more tax money to help pay for the cost. Plainfield’s school tax levy has remained at about $18 million for many years, while the overall budget has risen to nearly $140 million. The balance comes from state and federal aid and grants.

School board member Vickey Sheppard said residents may have to sign petitions, join rallies and recruit all their neighbors and friends to join in a campaign to make legislators pay attention to Plainfield’s needs.

Besides the school construction woes, the Plainfield district and all other Abbott districts had to submit a “zero-base budget” to the state Department of Education for 2006-07. Plainfield had new costs such as a charter school opening in September, teacher and staff contract resolutions, energy costs and tuitions at special schools that were allowed to raise their prices, Howard said.

“We were not able to hold an exact zero base,“ she said.The district now faces a $14.2 million cut to achieve the state mandate. The district proposed cuts that are now under state review.

--Bernice Paglia


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