School districts throughout New Jersey are undertaking facilities projects this year – building additional classroom space, installing new windows or HVAC systems, and updating school security – after more than $704.2 million in school construction projects were approved by voters last year.

Voters approved 44 construction proposals in 2014, totaling $704.2 million, on the six special school election dates. The results represent the highest total dollar amount approved since 2005.

In all, construction plans were approved in more than 80 percent of 54 school districts, the highest percentage in more than a decade.

School districts sought voter approval of bond issues to fund additional classroom space; improve health and safety conditions with the installation of new windows or HVAC systems; and, in the wake of tragedies such as the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings, to upgrade school security. Dozens of security enhancements to individual school buildings are included among the projects approved, ranging from security cameras, to access controls, to more secure school vestibules and entrances.

The availability of state funding appeared to be a factor in the high approval rate.

Most of the approved construction projects will be supported by state grants and/or annual debt service aid. These funding vehicles are designed to offset the amount of bonded indebtedness incurred by districts and/or the local property taxes needed to fund the projects, respectively. In 2014, many districts took advantage of a new round of state school construction grants.

State Funding

The total dollar amount of construction approved is the highest since the early 2000s, when districts raced to take advantage of a new law, the Educational Facilities and Construction and Financing Act of 2000, which provides at least 40 percent of eligible school construction costs through grants or debt service aid. In 2002, shortly after that legislation was enacted, more than $2 billion in construction was proposed, with $1.39 billion in projects approved by voters.

School districts sometimes propose multi-part construction proposals, with a base question, usually consisting of projects eligible for state aid, followed by supplemental question(s) frequently pertaining to athletic facilities which are often not eligible for state support.

Base proposals were rejected in only 10 of the 54 districts conducting construction referendums in 2014. Six districts proposed multi-part construction proposals this year. In five of these, voters approved the base question, but rejected one or more supplementary proposals.

The year 2013 also saw a high percentage of construction projects approved – 67.7 percent – but with fewer projects proposed overall. Last year, 16 of 24 school construction referenda were approved, for a total of $116.17 million in construction spending.