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On Eve of Resuming Projects, Schools Development Authority Scales Back Staff

Long criticized for waste and mismanagement, SDA trims nearly 10 percent of its payroll in latest reorganization.

As a decision nears on restarting New Jersey’s stalled school construction program, the beleaguered Schools Development Authority (SDA) will be doing it with fewer people.

The SDA confirmed that it laid off 24 people on Friday -- nearly 10 percent of its payroll -- and indicated that it’s not done yet. A spokeswoman said it was part of the latest reorganization of an agency long criticized for its waste and mismanagement.

"Staffing decisions -- including those made today -- are intended to further the Authority's goal of increasing efficiencies as an organization and directing finite resources to as many school facilities projects as possible," said the statement from Kristen MacLean, the communications director.

When asked for a number of how many positions would be eliminated, she said the process was "still ongoing."

The timing is critical, though. The SDA is still expected to announce early this year how it will proceed with dozens of court-ordered projects in some of the state’s neediest districts.

Fifty-one major projects that had been chosen for the SDA to complete -- from new high schools in Elizabeth and Camden to early childhood centers in Keansburg and Burlington City -- have been effectively stalled since Gov. Chris Christie’s election.

Christie and his appointed director for the SDA, Marc Larkins, said they first wanted to review the agency’s operations before proceeding. That review has been under way for the better part of the past year.

The SDA has provided hundreds of millions in grants to other districts. But much of the agency’s 300-person payroll, which is dedicated to overseeing and managing construction projects, has had few, if any, projects to work on.

NJ Spotlight reported in November that nearly 50 of those employees continued to earn $100,000 or more.

How many of those employees saw pink slips on Friday is unknown, but the layoffs were not a big surprise either inside the agency or outside.

One of those laid off was Kevin McElroy, a communications specialist and frequent spokesman since the agency was created in 2002.

"The specter of layoffs has been looming at the SDA for months," he said in an email over the weekend. "The grant programs are flourishing, but there are few active construction projects and new ones have come to a virtual standstill."

"Let's face it, given that reality, it's impossible to justify a 300-employee workforce," he continued. "Marc Larkins has been under pressure to cut staff, but to his credit he staved off that inevitability for as long as he possibly could. We were the first to go, but I doubt we'll be the last, unfortunately."

From the outside, one critic of the agency said the downsizing of staff should not necessarily mean a leaner list of projects.

"Larkins has kept saying they were bloated and overstaffed, maybe he was right," said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund.

“Given how Larkins has described how the SDA will work, they don't need all the capacity they had," she added. "It doesn't necessarily mean cutting back on projects."

But the head of the Education Law Center (ELC), the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation that brought the court’s order, said the fact remains that the projects are not being completed as required.

"The SDA spends millions every month doing nothing, wasting precious taxpayer dollars," said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director. "Even worse, the legislature sits idly by while the SDA puts our poorest students in harm's way and violates their basic rights, every day."

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