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SDA Goes Public With Its New Rules: What Gets Built and Why -- and When

SDA chief executive Marc Larkins listening to Paterson parents who came to meeting dressed in construction gear.

The new rules are finally public for school construction in New Jersey’s neediest districts. Standardized designs are in and lofty atriums are definitely out. Districts with serious overcrowding will get priority, and those wanting preschools will not.

And for the 100-plus projects that are being proposed, the rough math is that there is probably only enough money approved right now for half of them.

Such were some of the details that emerged from the Schools Development Authority yesterday, as chief executive Marc Larkins provided the first glimpses into the criteria the SDA will use going forward on the state’s 10-year $12 billion construction program.

Larkins presented the plan to the SDA’s board in a packed conference room, with district and civic leaders – not to mention a few contractors – eagerly awaiting to learn how the SDA will be doing business.

The ultimate results were not a surprise. Larkins and Gov. Chris Christie last week announced the 10 projects that will be the first phase and moving forward in the next year. The projects were chosen from 52 that had been underway and prioritized in 2008, but halted under Christie while Larkins reevaluated the criteria.

But how those 10 were chosen and how the rest will be evaluated had been largely kept secret until the board meeting, with Christie and Larkins only saying there would still be a premium on educational need but also on economic efficiency.

School Scorecard

Yesterday, Larkins laid out what will be a new scorecard for every proposed project in the 31 districts falling under the program, more than 100 projects in all and each rated on a host of factors with a maximum total of 28 points.

The most heavily weighted factor is overcrowding, Larkins said, followed by educational needs and existing building conditions. From there, it gets into efficiencies, both in meeting the district’s needs but also saving taxpayers money.

Still, it was not necessarily a straight ranking, since some of the approved 10 projects appeared to have lower point totals than some of those not chosen. Other factors were also considered, including the district’s own priorities and the status of a project. Another big factor is the ability of a project to fit into standardized models, a new mantra at the SDA.

Larkins stressed he wasn’t stopping at the first 10, but he said there needed to be some objective criteria to follow going forward.

"I understand that no matter how they are scored, every one of them represents a need in a district," Larkins said. "The question is how we rank those needs."

Larkins said there may be even another 100 projects on top of that not yet proposed. “But no way with the funding we have, that we’d get to 200 projects,” he said. “We had to start somewhere.”

Topping Out at $2 Billion

Looming over all the work was the reality that the state only has so much money, Larkins said, putting the total authorized and remaining at roughly $2.3 billion – the equivalent of 40 to 50 new schools at roughly $50 million each.

“That may seem like a lot of money, but we started at $8.6 billion and in five years that was exhausted,” he said.

But as much as the approved projects were the focus of the presentation, much debate has surfaced around those that were left off the initial list. For example, six preschool projects were removed from the priority list. That angered one advocate, who maintained that preschools are written into the law as getting priority, a result of the Abbott v. Burke rulings that spurred the construction program in the first place.

Another prominent project passed over is the Phillipsburg High School, where students are now taking classes in more than 30 trailers due to conditions in the school.

But Larkins claimed the project was a victim of high cost and elaborate design, putting the pricetag at $122 million and, for instance, requiring 10 square feet more per student than an approved project in Elizabeth.

"If you compare that with the standards we are looking at, it’s overdesigned," he said, vowing to work with the district to come up with a more economical plan.

By and large, the SDA board yesterday was supportive of the overall plan, with some reservations expressed but only a few direct questions. The plan was approved unanimously, although each individual project will still need separate votes as they proceed.

"I know everyone wants 100, 200, even 300 projects right away, but we would be doing the state a disservice if we were not looking at the whole program," said board member Robert Nixon. "This is a measure of review that is putting us on the right track."

The reservations came from member Michael Capelli, who worried the focus was more on the process than on getting schools built. "We have to look at our long-term goals, and we’re in the business of constructing schools, not just analyzing what we want to do," he said.

The public was ultimately allowed to respond as well, and representatives from a half-dozen districts stood up to air their grievances to how the selection process has played out.

The superintendent for Gloucester City schools, where a middle school is on hold, said the state had changed the rules in midstream.

"This is the third time this has been pulled out from under us, and all I’m asking is tell us what the rules are," said superintendent Paul Spaventa. "We’re trying to play the game, but it is very frustrating."

A group of community leaders and parents from Paterson came in hard hats and other construction gear to make their case. The district won two projects on the short list, but 125-year-old School 14 was not one of them.

Veronica Ramos, a home-school association president, came with a photo of herself as a 4th grader at the school when it celebrated its 100th birthday in 1986. "We needed the facilities then, and now it’s 125," she said.

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