Newark Superintendent Roger Leon has big plans for New Jersey’s largest district: a $1 billion bond to refurbish school buildings. As Leon obsesses over his real estate portfolio rather than on student academic growth (only 13% of Newark students are proficient in math, 27% in reading, and 7% in science), this latest gambit threatens to saddle city and state taxpayers with decades of debt in order to achieve something the city doesn’t need.
This news comes via TapintoNewark: at a recent school board retreat, Leon told school board members,
I need a billion dollars to fix all the other schools. We may go to the community to do a bond to actually have them vote to move that along. Obviously there’s a significant impact to everyone’s wallet. So we’re obviously mindful of the times. That’s why we haven’t done it before. So we will have community meetings and community forums to talk about what we would do with the billion dollars.
Nobody appears to know about this. It would be the largest bond–which requires voter approval through a ballot referendum—-of any New Jersey district ever, even though the state’s Schools Development Authority(SDA) pays facilities costs in Abbott/SDA districts.
North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr.: “The City Council has not been briefed on this proposed request from Newark Public Schools… I would need to find out how much funding we can expect from the SDA over the next few years. Moreover, we need access to projected enrollment numbers and which school buildings are going to be prioritized with the proposed funding.”
Susan Garofalo from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s office: “Mayor Baraka has not had a conversation with Superintendent León on this matter.”
Marc Pfeiffer, senior policy fellow at Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy: “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.”
Richard Keevey, senior policy fellow at Rutgers University, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy: “My assumption would be, if Newark went out and issued a billion dollars of bonds, the state would pay part of that based on current formulas.”
David Sciarra, recently retired head of Education Law Center: “The projects on the list for the Newark bond are clearly the types of projects the state is under court order to fully fund.”
The district has a long-term facilities plan which calls for building eight new schools. But it’s unclear if the district needs those buildings (it certainly needs to renovate some old ones) or what enrollment trends will be (Leon insists next year there will be an additional 1,200 students to the current 38,000) or why the district isn’t looking at placing students in current schools that are half-empty. “According to a TAPinto Newark analysis of building enrollment and capacity figures, 16 Newark school buildings are nearly one third empty. They include schools like Malcolm X Shabazz, which is only 28% full and Fourteenth Avenue at 36% of capacity.”
There’s another aspect to this plan that Tapinto calls “audacious”: Leon is on a crusade to demolish the city’s popular public charter school sector, ranked “best in the nation,” where student proficiency rates dwarf those in district schools. The sector currently enrolls 20,477 students with 3,585 on wait lists. Just over the last year he’s had the district pay lawyers $1.2 million (and counting) for lawsuits to seize back two old school buildings sold by the district in order to keep them away from charters that need to expand. He’s also, according to reports, colluding with SDA to chase away prospective charter school buyers. (A glaring inequity in New Jersey’s school funding plan deprives public charters of facilities aid even when they are located in districts like Newark where the state covers all building costs. A new bill proposal would rectify that injustice.)
What is the upshot of Leon’s “audacious” move? Keeping Newark students out of the schools their parents want them to go to while saddling us all with enormous debt. What could go wrong?