TRENTON — Among the issues unresolved as the Legislature begins its budget break is the long-term future of New Jersey’s school construction program.

Under state Supreme Court orders, the state must manage and pay for construction needs in 31 lower-income, mostly urban districts. As part of that program, the state also provides grants to pay for a part of projects in other districts.

All of the nearly $9 billion for the former Abbott districts has been allocated, though work on 11 construction projects will continue through 2025. Almost all of the nearly $3.5 billion in grants for other districts is also spent, as well as most of the $150 million for vocational school districts.

Plans for reauthorizing the program remain unclear, Schools Development Authority chief executive officer Manuel “Manny” Da Silva said in recent testimony before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools.

“I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I think that now needs discussions with the Governor’s Office and the Legislature to see how much the state can afford, and then we can roll out a capital plan that maximizes those dollars,” Da Silva said.

“Those discussions were initiated last year between the Governor’s Office, the Senate president and the speaker,” he said. “They stopped because the pandemic kind of took over our lives at that point, so as we stand right here or sit right here, I can’t tell you where those discussions are at. I’m not sure, to be honest with you.”

Lawmakers said the state has fallen far behind in its school construction program. The problem appears most acute in Elizabeth, which DaSilva described as 34% overcrowded and in need of 7,009 more seats for students.

“Basically, we need a lot more money,” said Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union, whose district includes Elizabeth. “We don’t know how much. And we’ve got demanding needs of 8,400 seats and an aging infrastructure that every elected representative can point to.”

“We have to do some bonding, and we’re going to have to talk about that with the governor and others because we’ve been bonding ourselves crazy just for COVID-19,” said Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex.

The SDA had emerged as a center of controversy early in Murphy’s term due to patronage and other concerns, though lawmakers appear more content now that Da Silva is in charge. But Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, still wants it merged into the state Economic Development Authority.

The Education Law Center, meanwhile, has asked the state Supreme Court to order the state to fund a full construction program. Murphy included $200 million in his proposed budget for SDA projects and $75 million for capital maintenance and emergent needs.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, said the state should take this opportunity to push for school regionalization, at least at the high school level.

“If we were able to at least share our high school resources and look at the issues we have with integration and the lack thereof in New Jersey and how we remain so segregated economically and racially, this might be an opportunity for us to at least try to start the conversation and the planning,” Jasey said.

Jasey said the idea can be sold on the basis of economic efficiency, better facilities and economic and racial integration.

“This is the moment. I think it’ll take courage, I know, but we can’t just keep doing business as usual. It’s too expensive. It’s too cumbersome. And it continues the inequities across the state for students in terms of facilities,” Jasey said.

“They say in life timing is everything, and I really feel like this is the time that we should be doing something on a bolder level,” she said.

Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, R-Morris, said a full picture of the needs would be beneficial for lawmakers and the public.

“When individuals come to us as legislators and say, ‘Our schools are disgusting. They’re terrible. They need to be torn down,’ they need to see what we’re dealing with and the kind of money that is needed to fix everything that needs to be fixed,” DeCroce said. “I think we should have a better projected capital plan that the Legislature could take a look and act on.”

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The state is currently completing work on its 2011 capital plan.

Da Silva said the agency wants to go through the 31 SDA districts to inventory the ages and conditions of school buildings, rather than rely on districts’ self-assessments, so it can have a true understanding as to the need.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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