OP-ED: LESSONS OF NEWARK’S SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION SUCCESSES, MISTAKES

KYLE ROSENKRANS | JULY 17, 2019

NJ Spotlight

Kyle Rosenkrans

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It’s perhaps one of the saddest open secrets that Newark children have routinely been cheated out of their constitutional right to funding for safe, adequate school facilities; a recent report by TAPinto Newark underlines that fact yet again.

It’s been nearly 20 years since our state’s highest court — rightly — declared that kids in cities like Newark have a constitutional right to learn in adequate school buildings. Twelve billion dollars and almost two decades of greed, graft and mismanagement later, the state has fallen short on this promise in just about every imaginable way.

TAPinto Newark’s well-researched report found that the state routinely exceeded its own cost-per-square-foot rules by almost four times the state limit in Newark.

The most egregious offense is not in the basic compliance question of whether the state followed its own rules (though that should be taken seriously), but rather the fact that Newark kids have desperately needed those funds and the state could have built more schools if the dollars had been spent more wisely.

Four times the cost means that it could have built almost four new schools for every school it actually built — so instead of the five schools it actually did build, Newark kids could have had 18 or more if the state just followed its own rules.

Do the math

I’m no school construction expert, but where I come from 18 is better than five. Even if those cost limits were unreasonably low, officials should have lobbied the Legislature to change the rule to something more reflective of the current market.

By our estimates, based on data from the Newark Board of Education’s website, there are over $500 million in upgrades needed in Newark school district facilities, according to its most recent (2013) long-range facilities plan. That doesn’t even count the millions in unfunded facilities needed by the city’s charter sector. A recent Chalkbeat story on Newark buildings gives an even more up-to-date illustration of this need.

Policymakers need look no further than Newark’s charter schools for lessons. TAPinto Newark’s article looked at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy — the most recently built charter school in Newark — and found that it was built at nearly half the cost ($46,878 per student) of the Schools Development Authority’s projects for the Newark Board of Education ($70,222 per student). Its cost-per-square-foot figures were also lower, but at a slightly lower rate because the KIPP building more efficiently housed the same number of kids in less space.

Said a different way, the state could have built almost twice as many schools for Newark kids if it just built like KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy — which is also required by law to pay prevailing wages and its contractors almost exclusively use union labor. This is but one example of efficient school construction — of what are likely many in the charter sector.

Moreover, Newark’s charter schools had to erect their buildings without a dime of the $12 billion in state school construction dollars that went to school districts over the last 20 years after the Supreme Court issued its ruling — despite state law that declares those charters to be public schools too.

What the state owes

Making matters worse is that, despite recent progress with the S2 legislation, the state still owes Newark’s public schools $174 million, and because charters receive about 72 percent of what districts receive on average, local charters are forced to take those already unequal funds to pay for their school building costs on their own.

This is something that no other type of public school must do, and this gross inequality in the law should be fixed when the state overhauls the SDA and reauthorizes school construction funding.

You’d think that everyone fighting for Newark kids to have safe, adequate school buildings would jump at the chance to learn how to stretch scarce government dollars to go farther and build more schools. Not so.

Instead, the tired, retrograde mindset of New Jersey’s anti-charter crowd leads them to publish misleading news articles on charter facilities that are heavy on clickbait headlines, but devoid of any finding of wrong-doing or cost comparisons to district school facility projects. They publish Op-Eds calling for ethics and budget disclosurerules for charter boards that are largely already in law under the state’s School Ethics Act and charter school financial regulations. And they waste taxpayer dollars by filing numerous losing lawsuits to close down Newark’s charters which are some of the best charter schools in the entire country.

Thankfully, most of Newark’s leaders and everyday people have largely rejected these us-versus-them politics and are committed to greater unity in our education system.

But just because a kid from Newark ends up in a charter school doesn’t mean that somehow their need for a safe adequate school building evaporates; all kids deserve this constitutional right. This is yet another issue where the needs of children in all school sectors are the same and our policies should reflect that.

So when the state overhauls the SDA and makes its next investment in school construction funding, it should learn from both the good and bad in Newark, and find a way to meet the urgent need to deliver more school buildings to more kids as efficiently as possible.

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Kyle Rosenkrans is the founder and executive director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation, a Newark-based nonprofit whose mission is to invest in people, programs, and partnerships that will improve public education systems by putting the interests of children first.

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