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Bond issue may get the old college try

If approved, financing could power campus construction projects

Michael Shatken, left, and Pamela Rew, of KSS Architects, say a bond could fund projects and spark future private donations.

New Jersey is considering its first statewide higher education bond issue in nearly a quarter century, prompting hopes from contractors and college executives alike.

New Jersey is considering its first statewide higher education bond issue in nearly a quarter century, prompting hopes from contractors and college executives alike.

A bond issue is supported by state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-West Deptford), who supports both an initial bond and the creation of a revolving loan pool to provide continuous financing to higher education.

“Our economy was humming and our pharmaceutical corporations were expanding” after the 1988 bond issue, Sweeney said. “The lack of investment over the years has seen industries like the pharmaceutical industry expanding in other states, rather than expanding here.”

Sweeney noted Thomas H. Kean, who was governor when the last bond was approved, raised the needs of higher education facilities in a report to Gov. Chris Christie from the commission Kean headed. Sweeney declined to put an amount on the funds he would seek, though he said he has discussed the issue with Christie and Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-East Orange).

Sweeney said investment in modern laboratories and classrooms will send a message beyond the state’s borders “that New Jersey’s going to have the strongest, brightest work force in the nation.” He said the state should identify which projects would be built with the bond, unlike the open-ended, ill-fated School Construction Corp. funding.

Michael Shatken and Pamela Rew, principals at Princeton-based KSS Architects, said a bond could fund projects that spark further private donations. “The impact of these dollars is going to be quite substantial,” said Shatken, whose firm has worked on both public and private college projects in the state.

Rew said it’s important to move forward with a bond this year, while construction costs remain low.

KSS is in position to increase its hiring if it started work on more higher-education projects, Shatken said. “There is a lost generation of architects that have either not gotten jobs or have lost their jobs during the downturn in the economy, and we look forward to employing those people,” he said.

Susan Cole, president of Montclair State University, has worked with the New Jersey State Presidents’ Council to assess the facility needs of colleges. “New Jersey is, as far as we can determine, the only state in the nation that has over the last several decades virtually abandoned making any investment in higher education institutions,” she said.

A survey of New Jersey colleges — of all sizes, both public and private — found in 2005 that they have $6 billion in facilities needs, but that $2.7 billion would meet their immediate needs. In today’s dollars, the colleges estimate that $3.5 billion would allow them to “really catch up and make a forward-looking dent” in their needs, Cole said.

Potential projects range from a $55 million center for environmental and life sciences at Montclair, including space for pharmaceutical research and business incubators; a $76 million rehab for classroom and lab space at a Newark site for the New Jersey Institute of Technology; and a $120 million chemistry and chemical biology building at Rutgers University, Cole said.

The lack of funding “has meant that New Jersey’s institutions have missed opportunities … to collaborate with business and industry, opportunity to expand high-demand programs, opportunity to innovate and create knowledge,” Cole said. “Montclair State has strong programs in the life sciences, and we’re out of lab space.” Turning away students who are interested in growing programs, she said, “is insane in a state like New Jersey — it makes absolutely no sense.”

Without a general obligation bond, the state has used several programs to help the colleges, generally with the state and colleges sharing either the overall debt service payments or subsidizing the interest payments, leaving colleges to pay the principles.

“It’s no secret that the state’s colleges and universities have incurred a lot of debt over the last decade in order to keep their facilities modern,” said Sheryl Stitt, acting executive director of the New Jersey Educational Facilities Authority, which oversees the programs.

Public colleges need help from the state in paying for facilities, according to Michael W. Klein, executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, which includes the nine four-year public colleges other than Rutgers University.

Expanded facilities are essential to accommodating the state’s long-range needs, Klein said: “The job projections show that New Jersey is going to need more bachelor’s degrees.” And the association’s communications director, Paul Shelly, said rising debt levels at colleges is “one of many reasons why tuition has gone up substantially over the past 20 years.”

Philip Beachem, president of the infrastructure advocacy group New Jersey Alliance for Action, said the bond issue ties into the state’s broader economic needs, adding that the possibility of a revolving fund for higher education will strengthen the institutions.

 

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