In land of rich, we're poor at fixing schools
Newark Star-Ledger, November 15, 2011
By Eileen Senn
All schoolchildren should be provided with a learning environment in which the roof and pipes don’t leak, the electrical system poses no hazards and the classroom air isn’t tainted with asbestos, lead, mold or other toxic contaminants. Yet New Jersey today gets an "F" for failing to meet that responsibility.
New Jersey has the third-highest rate of millionaires and billionaires in the country. Our state stands to lose more than $1 billion from corporate tax loopholes created in Gov. Chris Christie’s first two years in office, according to the New Jersey Policy Perspective research center. Yet the governor says we can’t afford to provide all of our children safe, modern places to learn.
New Jersey residents desperately need work. School repair and modernization would be one good place to start. Yet Christie has helped pay for the new corporate giveaways by ordering a halt to hundreds of essential school repair projects already approved after inspections by the Department of Education. He also stopped action on at least 53 badly needed school construction projects, according to the nonpartisan and independent Education Law Center.
As a health and safety expert with more than 40 years of experience, I researched the condition of New Jersey schools this year. Using the Open Public Records Act, I obtained reports showing that our children are facing widespread and preventable hazards every day.
One project designated for action by Department of Education inspections but blocked by the Christie administration was to repair the wall of an elementary school gym that was falling down. Other projects that were blocked included replacement of a junior high school’s structurally unsound roof and a ceiling at an elementary school that was getting ready to fall in. Another was to fix water and sewer leaks at a high school.
Our state also gets an "F" when it comes to modernizing our schools with money-saving, energy-efficiency measures and 21st century technology. The BlueGreen Alliance estimates that each school that is made energy efficient saves an average of $100,000 per year on operational expenses.
President Obama has asked Congress to invest in some school repairs as part of the American Jobs Act of 2011. But even if congressional leaders drop their opposition, that legislation would provide only a start on covering our school repair and modernization needs. New Jersey will need to do its part as well.
Wall Street and corporate CEOs are making more money and taking a larger share of our wealth than at any time in history. According to Forbes magazine, there are four New Jersey residents who have net worth totals of $10.6 billion. To put that in perspective, those four individuals alone have more than three times the $2.9 billion the Legislature allocated for school construction that Christie has blocked.
Our children go to school to learn, but these days, the main lesson we seem to be teaching them is that their health and safety and their future are not as important as adding even more to the wealth of those at the top. Elected officials, including Chris Christie, surely can do better.
Eileen Senn is an industrial hygiene consultant for the New Jersey Work Environment Council.