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This is an editorial by the Star-Ledger Editorial Board and was first published here.
Newark Superintendent Roger León is proposing a more than $2 billion bond to fix all the schools in his district, paid for by local taxpayers. And that is truly mystifying: This is an obligation that New Jersey’s Supreme Court has quite clearly laid at the feet of state taxpayers.
Does León not know that? Why would he ask Newark locals, among the neediest people in the state, to pay this bill? The Court has ruled that these communities can’t handle that. Which begs the question: What is he talking about?
City Councilman Anibal Ramos, a respected voice on education matters, couldn’t get a straight answer from León during a recent public meeting. We asked León the same question, and he refused to answer, as always.
Even David Sciarra, the former head of the Education Law Center and the leading voice in getting school construction projects moving in poor districts in New Jersey for the last 26 years, thinks this idea is crazy.
“Why they would vote for that amendment is beyond me,” Sciarra said. “Because if you’re a property taxpayer in Newark and you understand that the state is obligated to pay for this, why would you tax yourself? I wouldn’t. Would you?”
That’s what Ramos says, too. “This is primarily the responsibility of the state,” he said, adding that the people of Newark need to be “well aware” that they would have to foot the bill under León’s proposal.
Meanwhile, the Superintendent won’t say why he wants a massive building project like this at a time when he has excess capacity in many of his schools, some of which are vastly under-enrolled. Has he done everything he can to address the need in his district, before asking Newark taxpayers to cough up $2.5 billion in new debt?
Has he filed lawsuits against the state for the money, or gotten legislators together to go to Trenton and the governor to demand more action? Has he done what he can locally, by shutting down the worst schools and consolidating them? Or is he is just going to go and ask the people of Newark for a $2.5 billion bond?
León’s business administrator, Valerie Wilson, told the school board last month that it would cost an estimated $2.5 billion to fix all the schools in Newark, and said that “a bond is the only way to do it.” But why is putting this on local taxpayers the only way?
León seems to consider democracy to be a nuisance. We got no answer from the district last week, or back in February, which was around when he first suggested about a $1 billion bond for repairs to the schools. Mayor Ras Baraka says the superintendent hasn’t shared any intention to bond for school repairs with him, but also stressed that this is the obligation of the state.
“My feeling is that the New Jersey Schools Development Authority never made good on the promise to build schools in Newark,” Baraka wrote to us. “They fell woefully short on what was anticipated, and no real explanation was given to voters across the state. The (Schools Development Authority) owes us more schools.”
Right. Only two Newark schools are in the queue for state financing and are expected to move forward in the next few years, Sciarra says, which still leaves a significant number of dilapidated schools that need to be renovated or replaced. For nearly 15 years – spanning the entire term of Chris Christie and the first term of Phil Murphy – our governors and Legislature appropriated no new funding for school construction in poor districts like this, despite the overwhelming need, he says.
The Education Law Center went to court over it and the Murphy administration has since allocated $200m in the 2022 budget and $1.5b in 2023, which amounts to $350 million per year until 2026 for these projects. That’s good. But the SDA gave preference to projects that alleviate overcrowding in districts like Elizabeth, which disfavored Newark because its problem is not primarily overcrowding, but antiquated old buildings that need replacement. So it doesn’t do much for Newark kids attending schools that are unsafe and inadequate now.
But any frustration about that should be directed at Trenton: We shouldn’t be transferring this burden to Newark taxpayers who are already struggling. Nearly 80 percent of city residents rent their homes, and landlords would transfer any new cost burden onto them.
“With a median family income of about $2,500 a month, and a median rent of about $1,900 a month, many Newark families need more than one job to scrape by,” Baraka wrote in a recent op-ed. The average city resident can afford only about $800 monthly for rent, “and now rents in Newark are increasing over 100%,” the mayor added. “This is making our city unlivable for more and more people.”
If León is considering adding to that burden, “there obviously would have to be a comprehensive discussion with the community and elected officials before anything was put in place toward a ballot vote,” Baraka told us.
Which starts with a willingness to answer basic questions about it. León is simply not doing his job.