New Jersey voters will decide next week whether to borrow $500 million to expand county vocational schools and fund security projects, spending that advocates say would provide a needed investment in school infrastructure.
If voters approve the ballot question, dubbed the "Securing Our Children's Future Bond Act," $350 million would be spent on the vocational-technical schools as well as school security upgrades. An additional $100 million would fund water infrastructure projects in school districts, which were required by the state in 2016 to test their water for lead. The remaining $50 million would go to county college career and technical programs.
Nationally, nearly 84 percent of statewide school bond measures pass, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2012, New Jersey voters approved $750 million in bonds for construction at public and private colleges and universities.
But Garden State voters' track record on bond measures not related to environmental preservation is mixed, said Patrick Murray, pollster at Monmouth University. Still, Murray expects the measure — which hasn't garnered much campaign attention — to pass, in part because Democratic turnout "is going to be so high, relatively speaking."
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers supported the ballot measure, which was backed by business groups as a way to help grow the state's workforce.
Demand has been outstripping capacity at the county vocational-technical schools, which have been growing in popularity as they offer more technology-driven programs, said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.
Enrollment at the schools — located in each of the state's 21 counties — is 33,000, up 34 percent since 2000, according to Savage. Last year, they turned away 17,000 students, she said.
New Jersey employers, meanwhile, say they need more workers for technical jobs.
"It's not people to work on an assembly line. Robots work on an assembly line," Savage said. "But somebody needs to program the robots."
Like school districts, the vocational schools receive state aid, but for years that funding was relatively stagnant. While some counties have been able to bond for new projects, "the majority of counties have not been able to do that," Savage said. "We've got some schools that just have been hamstrung in any ability to expand."
Counties with vocational schools approved for a grant would have to fund 25 percent of the project cost.
It's unclear how much money from the ballot question might go to vocational schools. The measure designates $350 million in total for vocational school grants and school security projects — the product of a conditional veto by Gov. Murphy, who halved lawmakers' proposal to bond $1 billion due to concerns about the state's existing debt load.
Bonding the $1 billion would have cost the state between $1.7 billion and $2.2 billion, depending on the interest rate, according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
For $500 million, "you could probably largely divide the numbers in half," said Frank Haines, legislative budget and finance officer. He noted that while the office's calculations assumed a 30-year maturity period, the state's general obligation bonds tend to have a shorter period, which "would probably mean less interest."
While a number of school districts have issued bonds for security projects, advocates say the ballot measure would provide an added financial source for districts, which have to abide by a 2 percent property tax increase cap.
Projects like securing vestibules — having two levels of entry at a school building — and coating first-floor windows with bulletproof film have been in demand in districts around the state, said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Because of the levy cap, "it's very difficult to increase your revenues to pay for security upgrades," he said. Under the ballot measure, school districts would be eligible for grants for construction and improvements to school buildings for security purposes, but not for routine maintenance.
The $100 million would be available for school district water infrastructure projects. Since implementing a requirement in 2016 that districts test their water for lead, the state has reimbursed public schools nearly $3.2 million for testing, according to the state Department of Education.
But that money doesn't cover the cost of infrastructure improvements. "It's remediation where the districts need more help," Belluscio said.
The remaining $50 million would go to county colleges. As with the vocational schools, the grants to colleges would be for expanding or adding career and technical education programs.