New Jersey has the 38th-worst unemployment rate in the nation, and for construction workers the jobless rate is even worse. At the same time, thousands of school children, their teachers and other staff face serious health and safety hazards and poor learning conditions in buildings that may be more than a hundred years old.
Put these facts together and it becomes obvious that Gov. Chris Christie has a golden opportunity to put New Jersey’s building and construction tradespeople to work modernizing our schools and making them safe, energy-efficient, productive learning environments.
In 2008, facing the worst unemployment in generations, the state Legislature authorized nearly $4 billion in funding for school construction and renovation. More than five years later, at least one-third of students in 31 school districts with the worst facilities attend school in buildings that “fail to meet basic health, safety and educational suitability standards,” according to an unpublished Department of Education report obtained after the Education Law Center made an Open Public Records Act request last December.
According to a Rutgers University study, urgently needed school construction projects would generate an average of 9,357 jobs each year, $2.5 billion in income and nearly $160 million in tax revenues to support essential local and state services in our communities.
The governor already approved 30 school construction projects in 2011 and 2012. Now, in 2014, his administration needs to see that construction begins. The shovel-ready Oliver Street School project in Newark alone would create an estimated 700 jobs. In addition, the state can act on more than 700 “emergent” repairs that have been identified by school districts. These are conditions that are “so potentially hazardous” that they cause “an imminent peril to the health and safety of students or staff.”
Putting tradespeople to work on school construction and repairs will help ensure that students have access to 21st century technology. Reduced absenteeism rates will ensure more continuity for students, staff and parents.
In addition, increased energy efficiency will reduce our dependence on oil and other costly and nonrenewable sources of energy that pollute our air and water and are disrupting our climate. Updating each school’s energy efficiency can save an average of $100,000 a year on operational expenses, according to the BlueGreen Alliance report, “Jobs 21!”
Healthy Schools Now, a coalition of 18 parent, community, labor and civil rights organizations working with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, has demonstrated strong public support throughout the state for moving ahead with school modernization with funds already appropriated by the Legislature.
Already this year, the Christie administration responded to this coalition by committing to rebuild Trenton Central High School, a facility in deplorable condition. Six other school construction projects are finally underway, and five more have been announced. Fourteen urgent repairs have been completed. While these small steps show some response to community concerns, they still represent a drop in the bucket compared with the need the state and local school districts have long identified.
The governor has a chance to do a great deal more by quickly putting thousands of New Jersey residents to work constructing dozens of badly needed schools and making hundreds of urgently needed repairs. New Jersey working families and communities are counting on him to seize this win-win opportunity.