The state charter school association says it will take $900 million to address facility improvements and wants state legislators to consider changing the laws to allow for funding.
“We want to make sure that every single student that attends a public school in those districts has access to a safe and secure building. We know that this has to be done legislatively,” said Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.
In a report released last week by the charter schools association and JerseyCAN, a survey of 88 public charter and three renaissance schools estimated the need for more than 200 school construction or substantial renovation projects in the next decade to provide safe and secure school buildings for the families they serve.
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According to the New Jersey Department of Education, state law prohibits a charter school from using public funds to perform school construction, unless they are federal funds.
“Charter schools and the department must work within the confines of state law,” DOE spokesman Michael Yaple said.
Under current regulations, “a charter school may use state and local funds for the rehabilitation or expansion of a facility,” but not new construction.
Lee said he would like to see the law changed to allow charter schools to use state money for new facility construction.
“Charter schools are some of the most underfunded public schools in the state. Many states across the country provide facilities funding to charter schools,” Lee said.
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As a statewide discussion on how to fund school construction in former Abbott districts continues in light of financial issues in the Schools Development Authority, legislators need to look at the complete landscape of public education, Lee said.
The term Abbott district refers to poor, urban schools that receive special funding and consideration based on a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to educating your kids,” Lee said, noting that one in five students from the state’s 31 former Abbott districts attends a charter school. “There’s a reason why there’s 35,000 students on charter school wait lists across the state.”
State data show about 54,000 students attend charter schools in New Jersey.
“There’s tremendous demand for high-quality public charter schools. We think it says a lot that parents are voting with their feet,” Lee said.
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While there are no charter schools in Cape May County, Atlantic County is home to one charter high school and two charter elementary schools and Cumberland County has four charter schools.
Kim Garcia, school lead of the Vineland Public Charter School, which serves preschool through 11th grade, said the Cumberland County Charter Organization is in need of a gymnasium, outside sports fields and more science labs.
“Our goal is to include opportunities for family science programs that follow engaging curriculum to offer opportunities for students and families to learn and investigate science and mathematics together,” said Garcia, who is also district coordinator of state testing in the Millville Public Charter School serving kindergarten through 10th grade, and Bridgeton Public Charter School for kindergarten through fourth grade students. “Electric, heating and air conditioning charges financially impact our educational program by lessening the funds available for student needs.”
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According to the survey, the biggest facilities challenges faced by public charter and renaissance schools are overcrowding, the need for building safety improvements, and the need for maintenance repairs and upgrades.
Lee said more than $15 billion has been spent by the state on school construction and renovation, much of it in former Abbott districts, none of which has gone to public charter schools.
“So charter schools have to spend 10% to 15% of the operating budgets on facilities,” Lee said.
He said that, particularly as Gov. Phil Murphy announced an infusion of $336 million into K-12 education for next year during his budget address Tuesday, charter schools need to be included.
“Public charter school students are included in the calculation when money is allocated to the local district. They’re part of the pie. This idea that this is the district’s money and that charter schools are draining money from the district is a misnomer,” Lee said.