Legislative leadership wants to know why the state’s K-12, community college and vocational schools have yet to receive any of the $500 million in bond dollars earmarked for expansions and improvement at their facilities.
Voters across the state approved the half a billion dollar bond issuance during last year’s election – under the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act – which Gov. Phil Murphy halved from the original $1 billion proposal lawmakers sent to his desk.
The reduced amount includes $275 million for the expansion of county, vo-tech and technical school programs; $50 million toward county college career focus programs; $100 million toward improved drinking water infrastructure; and $75 million toward school security infrastructure.
“County vocational schools are currently in high demand but lack the physical space and programs needed to provide the technical skills and training that students are seeking to meet the needs of employers,” reads a Sept. 17 letter addressed to several Murphy administration officials.
“We have heard from a number of schools that might benefit from those grants that your administration has yet to provide any guidance on how or when grants may be allocated,” adds the letter, which is signed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District; Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, R-21st District; and Sen. Steven Oroho, R-24th District.
The letter continues that those institutions are uneasy about entering the new school year without that funding available, and are worried they would not have the funding in time for the summer of 2020 when the bulk of construction is typically completed.
Sweeney, at a Friday morning press conference, went further to suggest that the administration had yet to move forward on the bond issuance out of fear of a credit downgrade – following an 11-time credit rating drop under Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s eight years in office.
“The reason why it wasn’t a billion dollars, was because Wall Street had an issue with a billion dollars” from New Jersey, Sweeney said.
Murphy, in his veto statement, argued that “New Jersey already ranks in the top five states in the nation for tax-supported debt,” on top of its massively underfunded public worker pension and health care liabilities.
Additionally, the yearly debt service could have been upward of $2.1 billion, Murphy added of the $1 billion proposal.
Still, New Jersey Council of County Vocational and Technical Schools Executive Director Judy Savage told NJBIZ that the bonding rulemaking and regulation process was moving along at a typical rate and that she would expect major updates before the winter.
“There’s a lot that has to happen for the state to release bond money,” Savage said. “The Department of Education is finalizing an application that would define how people apply for the money and it will define the allocations process for the bond money. They are also in the process of developing regulations as required by the bond act itself to govern all of that.”
“Early November represents a year since the voters approved this,” she added.
Still, Savage maintained she was uneasy about the increasing demand and struggling supply of vocational and technical training opportunities for students in the state – something that the bond act is aimed at alleviating.
“There’s incredibly high demand for career, technical and education programs,” she said. “Our county vocational schools [are] vetting 2.3 applications for every available seat, so there is high demand.”