Marc Larkins made his long-awaited debut at the School Development Authority (SDA) today. The former prosecutor is taking over as the SDA’s chief executive at a critical financial and political period for the authority.
He immediately promised a review of the SDA’s books and processes, but pledged he would move ahead with the authority’s central mission of building and rebuilding the state’s public schools.
“My hope is to move as quickly as we can,” Larkins said. “Obviously there’s a need in the state, and I’m here to help children.”
One by one, more than a dozen staff stood up and introduced themselves to the 35-year-old Larkins at the governing board’s first meeting since he was formally approved for the $195,000-a-year post.
Larkins was appointed by the Gov. Chris Christie on Jan. 27, one of a slew of state and federal prosecutors named to key posts by Christie, a former U.S. Attorney.
Larkins, who was an assistant federal prosecutor under Christie, takes control of the authority at a crossroads in its decade-long and sometimes tumultuous existence.
The SDA—formerly the School Construction Co.—came under intense scrutiny in 2005 when it was accused of waste and mismanagement after spending down its allotted $8 billion with just a fraction of its intended projects completed.
Now, Christie has raised questions about the expense and purpose of all the state’s 700 outside authorities and has specifically targeted the SDA. One of the new governor’s first vetoes was of a $1.3 million change order by the SDA for the completion of a new Burlington City High School. The project has almost doubled in cost, to $45 million, since it was first approved.
The governor has since put any new SDA contracts on hold and said Larkins would review all its work, completed and pending. Larkins today said he hoped to move as quickly in restarting the new work.
“But there are a lot of contingencies,” he continued. “Obviously funding is one; that’s a big one.”
He said the authority has enough money to continue through spring and then would need another appropriation of funds. The SDA is authorized for $4.4 billion in borrowing, but there has been some question how fast—or even whether—Christie would move ahead with the bonds.
“My understanding at the present rate we can continue for a couple months,” Larkins said. “It somewhat depends on whether accelerate or slow down more . . . We’re hopeful we’ll get an infusion of funding and it won’t be a problem.”
“All indications are it is promising,” Larkins continued. “I think the governor is supportive of the program, he’s said as much. . . Beyond that, it hard to for me to say the timing.”
The SDA released its year-end financial statements for 2009, including more than $613 million in construction projects, almost $280 million less than 2008. Operating expenses rose close to 9 percent, to $44.7 million (view SDA Finance Report).
Larkins, a resident of Irvington, one of the 30 low-income districts targeted for the SDA’s projects, appeared to downplay any perception that he was coming in to clean up the SDA.
“From what I can tell so far, there has been a number of changes since the program started,” he said. “Obviously very public, there has been a name change, there has been a lot of legislation and audits and reviews of the processes. From what I can tell right now, the authority is on a good track.
“I can’t predict there will be drastic change, but I will say I will do a top to bottom review and see where there is room for improvement,” Larkins said. “That would be expected for a new leader of any new organization.”