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Christie Administration Announces New School Construction Grants

First wave of grants totaling $37 million will help fund more than $77 million in new construction—but some 50 projects in urban districts are still in 'limbo'.

New Jersey’s mammoth school construction program may be getting underway again. So are some of the same questions about the breadth and pace of work.

Top officials of the Schools Development Authority and the state Department of Education came to West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South yesterday to announce a wave of new grants, the first under the administration of Gov. Chris Christie.

The grants total $37 million in state money to help fund more than $77 million in projects, from Galloway Township’s elementary school in Atlantic County to Montague’s in Sussex County.

Credit: School Development Authority

That was rare good news from Trenton for West Windsor-Plainsboro, where the state’s $190,000 grant would help pay for renovations and security equipment for the high school. The district is getting hit hard in its direct state aid under Christie’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget, losing more than 30 staff.

“It was nice the state is helping us out on this side at least,” said Charles Rudnick, the high school’s principal.

But there is no such celebration yet for urban schools, where the state picks up 100 percent of the costs but also oversees the design and construction and imposes far stricter guidelines on the funding.

In these districts, 50 projects are sitting in limbo, and state officials said yesterday it could be at least several more months before they learn their fates.

That has worried districts and their advocates who fear the conditions of many of these districts’ buildings are only growing worse with time.

“These were priority projects two years ago,” said Joan Ponessa, facilities consultant for the Education Law Center, the Newark center that has led the Abbott v. Burke school equity suit. “Some of these buildings are in terrible shape, and it certainly hasn’t changed.”

State officials said they were committed to finishing the work first ordered by the state Supreme Court as part of the Abbott rulings. But they also said they will be more deliberate in weighing the need for each project.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
West Windsor-Plainsboro High's $190,000 grant will help pay for renovations and security equipment.

For the first time, state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler said some projects on the 2008 capital plan may not be realized right away. And he said the state’s financial crisis would have to be a factor in deciding what projects make the new list.

A Tough Balancing Act

“I can definitely understand districts’ frustration, but the issue is what is affordable,” he said.

When asked whether that runs counter to the court’s demands in the Abbott decisions, Schundler said the court would understand.

“The court appreciates there is a limit to the money, that if you spend on one project, it comes out of another,” he said. “The court understands that.”

The new Christie administration faces a tough balancing act with the school construction program, at $12.4 billion one of the largest in the country.

The School Development Authority has been plagued by accusations of waste and mismanagement since it was created under the Abbott orders in 2001. Christie appointed a former assistant federal prosecutor, Marc Larkins, to run the agency as a message that such problems would be rooted out (see Marc Larkins Debuts at School Development Authority).

But Larkins, himself an Irvington resident, repeatedly says the need for the projects has not abated, and he stresses that the governor is committed to completing the work.

Yesterday, he said it will just take time, with the state soon to begin a review of the 2008 capital plan of the urban districts to see if all the projects should remain priorities and whether others should be added to the list.

“The idea is to complete as much as we can and as quickly as we can,” Larkins said. “But we also have to keep in mind issues of cost and quality. . . It’s not a question of if these projects will be finished, but how quickly and in what form.”

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