TRENTON — School funding is back before the state Supreme Court, which has been asked by the Education Law Center to order Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature to provide more money for school construction by the end of June.

School construction in the 31 mostly urban districts covered by the Abbott vs. Burke series of lawsuits must be paid for and managed by the state under a 1998 court ruling. The program is continuing some previously approved work but hasn’t had money to take on new projects in about six years.

The Education Law Center filed its most recent motion on Jan. 28.

“We’ve been trying to get the Murphy administration to step up and deal with this without having to get the court involved. Our preference would be to keep the court out of this,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director. “But to no avail. We’ve just been unable to get them to move on this, to kind of ask the Legislature for a specific amount of funding and put it on the table.”

“We’ve made every effort, is all I can say,” Sciarra said. “We’ve tried. We’ve bent over backwards to try to get cooperation from the administration, from the Legislature, and just have gotten nowhere. So, we’ve asked the court to step in.”

The law center went to the Supreme Court a year ago with a similar request, but it was dismissed as premature in anticipation that funds would be included in the 2021 state budget.

During last year’s case, the Schools Development Authority did complete an overdue update of its statewide strategic plan, as required every five years to identify priority projects in urban districts. It identified 24 projects in 16 districts though didn’t attach a price tag to the plan.

The budget was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and then didn’t include construction funding.

“Despite our requests, specific requests, that the Legislature and the administration do this, nothing happened in the budget. The budget was enacted without any new construction funds,” Sciarra said. “There’s been really no movement either from Gov. Murphy or legislative leaders to get this on the agenda and get it done.”

Sciarra said the coronavirus pandemic adds more urgency because the state is supposed to fund emergency health and safety projects to ensure schools can safely reopen, such as ventilation or heating and cooling and efforts to ease classroom overcrowding.

“We’re not going to wait any longer. We can’t. We’ve got to get this done,” Sciarra said. “It’s especially important now because of the pandemic.”

The Murphy administration hasn’t yet responded to the court filing.

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Murphy will make his 2022 budget speech to the Legislature on Feb. 23, in which he could address construction funding. It’s not yet clear if that will occur in a formal speech to a joint session, as is the tradition, or virtually, as took place for the State of the State.

In the past, the Legislature expanded the school construction program to include grants sharing the cost for construction in suburban schools.

The future of the construction program is unclear. Concerns about the past management of the program have some lawmakers interested in merging the SDA with another agency.

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