Newark school buildings raised safety concerns. Why haven’t they been fixed?

Newark’s school buildings desperately need fixing. Yet, despite a longstanding court order that the state replace Newark’s crumbling schools, no help is on the horizon.

In 2016, New Jersey’s education and school construction agencies offered to pay for urgently needed repairs in certain school districts. The projects had to address school conditions that could cause “imminent peril to the health and safety of students and staff.”

This was exciting news to Newark officials, who knew the district’s schools were in serious disrepair. They catalogued the most egregious problems: falling roofs, obsolete fire alarms, faulty heating and cooling systems, broken windows, and deteriorating doors. Ultimately, they asked the state to fund more than 150 projects at an estimated cost of $311 million.

Nearly a year later, the state responded. The education department approved just 11 projects in Newark — a fraction of what district officials said was needed to make their buildings safe and sound.

This week, the Schools Development Authority, the state agency tasked with overseeing the repairs, said that seven of the projects are expected to be completed this year at a cost of $3.2 million. The others, including two additional projects approved after 2017, will not be completed until at least 2020 — four years after the district requested the urgent repairs.

That leaves dozens of Newark schools still needing major fixes — and new superintendent Roger León facing pressure from advocates and families alike to improve their conditions. He has taken early steps to tackle the problem, commissioning a detailed inspection of the district’s more than 60 school buildings and setting aside funds for renovations in his budget. 

But it remains unclear how the cash-strapped district will pay for the full range of repairs that are needed without more money from the state.

“Ultimately, we don’t have the dollars to actually fix everything that is wrong in our respective schools,” León said at last month’s school board meeting after Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP, called for immediate repairs. “The state of where we are now is not good.”

Newark’s schools are old and, in many cases, crumbling. Officials say the average age of its buildings is more than 90 years. The oldest, Lafayette Street School, was built in the 1840s — more than a decade before Abraham Lincoln became president, as León has noted. Last year, four of its ceilings collapsed, displacing students for several weeks. 

Newark is one of 31 high-poverty districts where the state has been court-ordered to fully fund the construction and renovation of school buildings. The Schools Development Authority has issued more than $11 billion in bonds to pay for that work, which includes some 850 completed projects. 

Much of the money has gone towards repairs in Newark. But many of the aging buildings will continue needing fixes until they are replaced. In 2005, district officials said nearly 40 new buildings were needed. Yet the state has paid for just six over the past dozen years, León told state lawmakers in March.

Today, the Schools Development Authority is almost out of money and cannot afford to add any more new schools to its construction list. And because it has long been beset by charges of corruption and waste, some lawmakers are reluctant to let the troubled agency take out more debt.

Now, education advocates say they may take legal action to force the state to comply with landmark rulings by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1998 and 2000 that said the state is responsible for the full cost of upgrading the buildings in the poorest school districts, including Newark.

“The court made it clear that a ‘thorough and efficient education’ requires safe and adequate school facilities,” said Theresa Luhm, an attorney at the Newark-based Education Law Center, which filed the original lawsuit prompting the court orders. “It’s not optional — it’s the state’s obligation.”

In the meantime, Newark has been left to grapple with a host of acute building challenges with limited state support.

Nearly a third of the schools have “extensive water infiltration” due to leaky roofs or damaged outside walls, said Jason Ballard, the district’s assistant school business administrator, at a January board meeting. In nine schools, the leakage has led to “possible indoor air-quality issues” due to mold, said Ballard, who added that the district regularly monitors the air in those schools.

Earlier this year, León hired two former Newark educators, Mary Bennett and Raymond Lindgren, to personally inspect every school building. 

They found peeling paint, uncovered radiators, and bathrooms with missing sinks and toilets, according to a presentation they gave. Some classrooms lacked air conditioning because the schools’ old electrical systems could not handle the window units that were purchased. Other schools must have student meals delivered to them because they lack full working kitchens. And more than 60 percent of school roofs “need major attention,” Bennett estimated.

In an interview, Bennett said past superintendents did not do enough to maintain the buildings. But now it is León’s job to find solutions, which could include using the district’s current resources more efficiently to make repairs.

“Nevermind who created the concerns,” she said. “The bottom line is: You’re sitting in the chair now — what are you going to do?”

The district recently hired a consultant to help write a new five-year building plan to replace one that expired last month. And the district’s budget for next school year includes nearly $14 million for building improvements.

However, the district’s school business administrator, Valerie Wilson, has said she wants to minimize the amount of money pulled from classrooms to pay for renovations. But with the state unlikely to pay for new buildings, the district will have to find alternative funding sources. Earlier this year, Wilson she was looking into city-issued bonds — effectively loans the city takes out to cover expenses. The money would fund school building projects that the Schools Development Authority will not.

Yet some residents are tired of waiting. The Newark NAACP recently sent León a list of repairs it wants completed immediately so that all classrooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms are fully functional by the fall. 

At last month’s school board meeting, a parent of three children who attend Thirteenth Avenue School said the gym is unuseable gym and the library outdated. Students there deserve more than promises of better buildings in the future, said the parent, Regina Underwood. 

“You giving them a dream that you’re going to come in and fix up the school,” she said. “Do it.”