He noted that there is legislation pending to give $3 billion more to school projects. Additionally, a valid state Supreme Court ruling still compels new school construction in the Abbott "special needs" districts like Hoboken. Just because the money hasn't been approved yet, that doesn't mean the state can now ignore the court order.
How did this start?
In July of 2002, then-Gov. James McGreevey created the New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation (SCC), a subsidiary corporation of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. It has been delegated all the responsibilities for instituting the New Jersey Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act.
The goal of that act was to invest $8.6 billion in public school construction in New Jersey over the next decade. Included in this money was at least $6 billion for the renovation and construction projects in 31 "special needs" urban school districts, known as the Abbott school districts, of which Hoboken is one.
But now the SCC has become a black hole for taxpayer dollars, with massive cost overruns, slow progress and little oversight, according to several recent reports (see sidebar).
Some projects chosen
On July 28, state officials approved the last 59 projects they can bankroll at this time. The projects were selected from among the 266 that the state already had begun working on.
The final list of projects was developed by a three-person panel consisting of representatives from the Department of Education, the Attorney General's Office, and the governor's office. It was approved unanimously by the SCC board.
According to the Star Ledger, the projects approved for construction yesterday are slated to cost almost $1.5 billion. That would consume virtually all that remains of the $6 billion that lawmakers approved for a court-ordered overhaul of obsolete public school buildings in 31 communities.
Hoboken had already made plans for a new high school, a middle school, and an athletic field in the redeveloping northwest section of town.
Hoboken's plans called for the construction to take place on a six-acre piece of property near the now-vacant former Cognis Chemical plant on 12th Street from Adams to Madison streets. The proposed new high school would include 32 classrooms, a gymnasium, music room, science labs, an auditorium, a cafeteria, media center, wood shop, horticulture lab, planetarium, an ITV lab, daycare, a technology lab and administrative offices. The new 151,886 square-foot school will have a student capacity of 852.
The new elementary school, built nearby, will include 36 classrooms, a gymnasium, an art and music room, a cafeteria, stage, media center, horticulture lab, computer room and administrative offices. The 85,015 square-foot facility will have a student capacity of 572.
The six existing school buildings in Hoboken will be rehabilitated, except for the Demarest Middle School on Garden Street, which will be converted for some other public use.
Two projects did get funding
While the high school and elementary school were not on the list to receive funding at this time, the SCC announced that Hoboken was approved for two projects: the multi-million dollar renovations of the Connors ($14.5 million) and Calabro ($8.8 million) primary schools.
The fact that these two projects were approved by the SCC holds great significance, Sen. Kenny said.
First, he said, these schools are in need of repair and the renovations. But there is a second, less obvious importance. It's an indication from the state the Hoboken is still an Abbott district, at least, as far as, school construction is concerned, Kenny said.
In some ways, Hoboken is an anomaly, which in recent years has made it a difficult case study for the state Department of Education. Hoboken today is a very different place than in 1990, the year the Abbott districts were selected. With the development boom has come higher property values and more affluence. Hoboken's wealth has increased in the community, but this isn't reflected in the student population. The district is largely made up of children from the city's public housing, and according to state figures, over 70 percent of its children are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
There has been much criticism at the state level that Hoboken should be completely removed from Abbott designation. But the fact that the Connors and Calabro schools have been approved for renovations means that Hoboken is still in line for Abbott school construction dollars.
"[This announcement] affirms the fact that Hoboken is considered an Abbott district as it relates to school construction, which is an important precedent," Kenny said.
He added that this bodes well for the city's prospects for future new school construction. Kenny said that the entire purpose of Abbott funding was to put these schools into the mainstream. Now that Hoboken is beginning to attract families from all demographics into the public schools, updated facilities that reflect the town as a whole are imperative.
"It's a necessity to be a complete urban area," Kenny said. "It would be self-destructive to deny us the opportunity at this point."
No funding, yet
But Hoboken doesn't have funding for the construction of a new elementary and high school, so how will it get it?
Currently, there is legislation pending in Trenton would authorize about $3 billion more in borrowing for the school program, but it did not get a hearing before lawmakers left for their pre-election recess last month.
The state is currently struggling with a massive amount of public debt, which is due to increase by several hundred million dollars next year. While there is still a real need to update or rebuild outdated schools, there are some lawmakers in Trenton that are now shying away from green-lighting the borrowing of the billions of dollars needed to finish the earmarked projects. "The dollars still have to be authorized by the legislature and the governor," Kenny said. He added that won't happen until after the November election.
Kenny said that plans are still to buy the Cognis property and build two schools there. He added that by the end of the year, he anticipates that about $600,000 will approved by the state for an environmental engineering study for the property, which is one of the last steps before the SCC would be able to purchase the property, assuming the state legislature approves the funding.
In Hoboken's favor
Hoboken does have several things in its favor. First, gubernatorial frontrunner U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine is a Hoboken resident, and Kenny is the majority leader in the state Senate, which could give Hoboken leverage in school project funding.
Another positive factor is that there is still a valid state Supreme Court ruling that compels new school construction in the Abbott districts. Even acting Gov. Richard Codey said this will not be the end of school projects.
"One thing should be clear to New Jersey residents," Codey reportedly told the Star Ledger. "There will be many more schools built in our state in the future, and it will be up to the next governor and the legislature to find the necessary funding."