New Jersey Republicans yesterday proposed putting a $345 million bond referendum on next year's ballot to fund public school improvements.
The proposal, which the Republican leadership hopes to introduce in the Legislature shortly, would also tap proceeds from a recent bond sale from the state Economic Development Authority to create a pool of funds for school renovations and new construction.
"Many school facilities throughout the state are outdated and in need of major repairs," said Senate President Donald T. DiFrancesco, R-Union. "Buildings that are crumbling, overcrowded, and unsafe are not conducive environments in which to teach or to learn."
About $150 million of the total would be used as grants earmarked for the state's 30 poorest school districts. Those districts have been the subject of lawsuits in recent years charging that New Jersey's system of education funding is biased in favor of rich districts.
Each of the 30 districts would get a minimum of $250 per student, plus extra grants based on an analysis of individual districts' capital needs.
The rest of the money would be used to establish a revolving loan fund open to every district in the state. Interest on the loans would be based on a sliding scale reflecting the ability of the district to repay.
DiFrancesco said he hopes to start the program immediately by taking $45 million from a recent $224-million Economic Development Authority sale. The money would be paid back from the future bond sale if voter's approve the idea next November.
The development authority bonds are backed by a revenue stream from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is paying the state about $14 million a year for New Jersey's leasing rights to several floors in one of the World Trade Center towers.
Robert Lurie, the state's director of public finance, said the Economic Development Authority included provisions allowing such a scenario in its bond documents for the recent sale, so DiFrancesco's plan would not violate the bond covenants.
The state's Republican leadership has proposed requiring a greater emphasis on preschool, nutrition, and family services, and the bond proposal was introduced as a way of helping to pay for the changes.
"The bond initiative provides that a portion of the aid received must be dedicated toward construction or renovation so that the schools will be better prepared to deliver these human services programs." DiFrancesco said.
The Senate president noted that the state has never before had a school improvement bond issue on any ballot.
Next month's ballot will include a $345 million "Green Acres" bond act to finance clean water, historic restoration, and open land preservation initiatives.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Jim Florio said he will kick off a public awareness program today to increase support for next month's bond referendum.
She said the governor had not yet reviewed DiFrancesco's proposal for next year's ballot.