NJ Department of Education officials won’t provide data on possible school construction project backlog

Two weeks ago, the superintendent of the Princeton Public Schools announced that the November bond referendum would be postponed because the New Jersey Department of Education had not approved the district’s proposed construction projects.

Planet Princeton then reached out to a spokesman for the Department of Education asking how many districts were waiting for the state to approve their projects. The New Jersey Department of Education reviews proposed changes to the district’s long range facilities plan, the actual construction proposals, and evaluates the amount of state funding to support the project.handles project reviews within the department.

A day later, the Department of Education didn’t have an answer, at least not for the press.

“I don’t have the figures on numbers of projects available (e.g., I don’t know how many are currently being reviewed and/or how many have been processed in recent month),” wrote Spokesman Mike Yaple in an email on Sept. 5. “The size of the projects can also play a role, as there have been some sizable projects that have been submitted for review.”

Two weeks later, the Department of Education still has not provided an answer to the question, in spite of repeated emails back and forth asking for the data.

Planet Princeton requested information on the number of districts awaiting approvals to gauge what kind of backlog, if any, exists at the New Jersey Department of Education for approving projects.

In contrast with Princeton, the West Windsor-Plainsboro Public Schools district received approvals for its proposed construction projects in five weeks. The district submitted all its projects for review on May 8, and the plans were approved by the state on June 15, West Windsor-Plainsboro Spokeswoman Gerri Hutner said. The school board there voted in Aug. 28 to hold its bond referendum in November. 

Princeton submitted its revised project proposals some time after the May 28 school board meeting where the board voted to amend its plan to include the purchase of the Thanet building. 

The only information the spokesman would provide on Sept. 14 was the total number of projects “processed” in the state that were slated to go before voters between last September and March, and the number of projects the Department of Education has processed or is processing for the same time frame this academic year. A district can have a number of projects.

The Department of Education processed 132 school construction projects that were slated to go before voters between September and March of last school year. This school year, the department has processed, or is still processing, 247 school construction projects for the same time frame, and more construction proposals may be submitted by districts.

Yaple said he thought Planet Princeton wanted to gauge if there was an increase in school construction proposals. “If so, that would be a more accurate way of describing it,” he said.

Asked again for the number of districts with project approvals pending as of Sept. 4, an answer still has not been provided. Given the lack of an answer, it might be reasonable for one to guess that Department of Education officials don’t want to provide the numbers because there is a backlog.

It’s unclear if and how the Murphy administration’s recent staff purge at the department is playing into the lack of information and the review timelines. Education blogger Laura Waters wrote in her blog NJ Left Behind that 40 staffers at the Department of Education were fired on July 19. Several days later, the DOE put up postings to refill the positions on the  state website.