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SDA Scorecard Raises More Questions About How Projects are Picked

Assembly education committee asks SDA head Marc Larkins to clarify the process.

The announcement from the Schools Development Authority (SDA) earlier this month about how it would proceed with construction projects was supposed to clarify a process that for years was anything but clear.

But since the announcement, there have been far more questions than answers to how the SDA is picking its work, with the agency releasing some more details last week but hardly to lawmakers’ satisfaction.

In response, the Assembly education committee has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday to quiz SDA executive director Marc Larkins.

"Much of it is still not clear to us," said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the education committee. "One thing we want to be sure of, is not just getting schools built, but also that the process is clear going forward."

With Larkins at his side, Gov. Chris Christie announced that the SDA’s long-stalled construction work for the state’s neediest districts would restart under a more efficient and streamlined agency. The program, under order of the state Supreme Court in its Abbott v. Burke rulings, had long been plagued by accusations of waste and mismanagement.

The SDA said it would start with 10 projects in 2011, chosen on a variety of factors that spoke to both their need and their cost-effectiveness, and the details of that process came out a week later at the SDA’s monthly meeting.

Larkins detailed a scoring system for 110 eligible construction projects in the 31 selected districts, each getting points on a complex rubric developed for both the SDA and the state education department that weighed everything from the cost of the project to the existing overcrowding in the district.

But a closer look at the scoring found that a handful of projects with the highest scores were not among the 10 chosen projects. In fact, six of the top 10 scoring projects -- all garnering at least 20 out of the maximum 28 points -- were not chosen to start in the next round. One chosen project had just 11.5 points.

Making the request under the state’s Open Public Records Act, NJ Spotlight last week received another ream of data that broke the scores down further for each school. Included are criteria for both costs per square feet and costs per student, scheduling certainty, share of students now in “marginal” facilities, and different levels of overcrowding.

Still, the new data does not shed much more light on why some projects were chosen to proceed and others weren’t. Edythe Maier, a spokeswoman for the SDA, said a separate level of evaluation was conducted that looked further at whether projects were possibly suitable for standardization in design and other cost efficiencies. But she said there was no available summary of how schools broke down by that evaluation.

“There is not a score sheet for these factors,” Maier said in an email Friday. “SDA considered elements including whether the project is supportive of standardization, total project cost to complete, whether the project is poised to proceed to the next appropriate development stage and the project's interrelationship with the district's overall plan. Using this framework, the SDA identified 10 projects that were appropriate to advance in 2011.”

The response has left some lawmakers and also school officials in the passed-over districts wanting more specifics.

Diegnan said last night that he specifically wants Larkins to answer on Tuesday why the proposed Phillipsburg High School is left off the list, given many of its students are attending classes in more than 30 temporary trailers due to overcrowding in the school.

Phillipsburg’s project was the second highest-scoring project in the state under the SDA’s scoring system, behind only a Keansburg early childhood center that was also passed over. In the latest data, the high school project met five out of the six criteria for overcrowding.

Diegnan visited the school a week ago, and brought along a film crew to record the building’s conditions. He said the video would be shown as part of the hearing on Tuesday.

“I cannot imagine how in the world Phillipsburg is not one of the 10,” Diegnan said. “But it’s not just Phillipsburg, the entire process needs clarification.”

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