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School bond is about pork, not pupils

Originally appeared in the Star Ledger on 03/27/01
By Paul Mulshine

You know that $8.6 billion bond issue to build new schools, the one that acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco doesn't want you to vote on? The other day I saw why.

You'd vote no. At least you would if you saw what I saw when I decided to take a look at the schools in one of the towns that will get free construction money from the bond issue.

That town is Asbury Park. It's a good town to use as an example because it's small. It has just five schools. Any interested citizen can drive through the town in a half- hour or so and see for himself whether the schools are so deteriorated that we need to ignore the state constitution to borrow money for new construction.

In the case of Asbury Park, the proposed tab for new construction is $96 million. That's a lot of money, nearly a third of the assessed value of the town. So I thought I'd take a look around. As I drove there, I imagined I'd see horribly rundown, decaying brick buildings with leaky roofs and inadequate playground space. And I did see a rundown brick building as I headed up Bangs Avenue to take a look at the middle school. For a second there, I thought the state Supreme Court might have had a point when it ordered all that spending. Then I realized the brick building was an old church. The middle school was across the street. It was a quite handsome, three-story structure that looked much nicer than the schools I attended.

I drove down the street to the Bangs Avenue elementary school. This one was older, from the era when entrances had "Boys" and "Girls" carved above them. Like the middle school, it was well- maintained, and what I could see of the interior looked neat and tidy.

I got back into the car. As I passed the old state inspection station, I noticed a gleaming new building on my left. Could this be a horrible inner-city school in which kids were denied their basic right to a thorough and efficient education? If so, it was well-disguised. The date "1989" was carved into the stone, but it looked even newer.

I headed over to the high school. I'd been there before back in high school when we used to go there for chess meets. We were always envious of its spaciousness and grandeur. It still looked majestic. The columns in front made it look like one of those schools that appears in movies about rich teenagers.

I saw the stadium in back. Surely that was a squalid, rundown facility, one thoroughly inadequate for those athletes hoping to follow in the footsteps of the great Frank Budd, the Asbury Park alumnus who once held the world record in the 100-yard dash.

Not exactly. Budd would have run even faster if he'd had the chance to stride down the beautiful composition track that matched the school color, blue. As for the bleachers, they were new and gleaming, as nice as anything you'll see in the suburbs.

They should be. The district spends $14,756 a year per student, most of it coming from the state. That's more than all but a handful of schools in America. But its test scores continue to lag. The tuition at the Catholic school in town, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, is about a seventh as much. Yet many minority parents choose to send their children there.

Obviously the state's public school system isn't serving the kids or the parents. So who is it serving? The teacher unions. The lawyers. The architects. The engineers. The builders. And of course the politicians who will be getting contributions from all of the above. That's why the state constitution gives the voters the right to approve new debt in a referendum. If you had a chance to vote on this bond issue, you'd demand to know whether it's the school buildings that are the problem or the school bureaucracy.

But you'll never get a chance to find out. The deed is done and the only thing standing between the politicians and the pork is the movement, which is suing the DiFrancesco administration to force a referendum on the bonding. Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, a Republican who is leading the movement, says the real problem here is that there aren't any Republicans in Trenton.

"There's just one political party in New Jersey. The Democrats and the Republicans both want the same thing," Lonegan says. "Their idea of government is not to do the right thing. It's to stay in office."

True enough. If you read that Star-Ledger article Sunday on how well DiFrancesco's law firm has done during his time in Trenton, you can understand why he wouldn't want to poke a hole in the pork barrel.

What you might have a hard time understanding is why you should vote for him as governor.

Paul Mulshine is a Star-Ledger columnist.

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