Marc Larkins, the chief executive of the Schools Development Authority, said yesterday that construction bids will finally go out this fall for two new schools in New Jersey's high-poverty districts. He added that the bulk of the remaining eight projects slated to proceed could be put out to bid next year.
But construction is unlikely to start on any of them until 2012, making 2011 the second consecutive year -- both under Gov. Chris Christie -- that the authority did not break ground on any projects under the court-ordered program.
The slow progress getting shovels in the ground continued to be the source of frustration yesterday, as Larkins and his staff testified for two hours before the legislature's Joint Committee on the Public Schools.
Larkins said in an interview that he did not view the delay as a two-year lag. The SDA's chief executive officer contends that the agency spent more than a year reviewing and revising its operations and the school plans under consideration.
The SDA came out with its latest capital plan in March, naming 10 projects that would proceed, including the two going to bid for Long Branch and Elizabeth. But Larkins said some continued revisions and the state's procurement process all have added to the clock.
"I say it's six months passed without new construction," Larkins said. "But we are doing what we said we'd do, and that takes time. I'd like to be able to say let's get started right away, but it doesn't work that way."
The hearing, held in Newark City Hall, was specifically on the topic of how the SDA and other state agencies responded to storm (and earthquake) damage in public schools.
Attended by only Democratic lawmakers, the hearing gave rise to repeated references about the snail's pace of projects in a program once touted as the most aggressive school construction initiative in the country. The slowdown has left just four new schools in the high-poverty districts currently under construction at the start of the school year.
Paterson has two projects on the list of 10 that are to proceed next year, but advocates yesterday said they wonder when -- and even if -- they will be finished.
"We never hear a specific date," said Fernando Martinez, a Paterson father and member of the Statewide Education Organizing Committee, a grassroots group. "I understand there is a need for design work and the bidding process, but the fact of the matter is we won't get another school in Paterson for seven years."
After the hearing, Larkins said the two Paterson projects are likely to be among those that go to construction next year. But he continued to hedge on whether all of the 10 chosen in March will proceed.
Other than the two proceeding this year, he said the others continue to be reviewed for need and how well they fit into standardization of design that the SDA has planned. "I hesitate to make a call on all eight of them," he said.
When asked specifically if any may be eliminated, Larkins said that it would be "premature" to say. But he also said other projects may be added to the list as the SDA continues its reviews. He did not give any specifics.
"It's a rolling program," he said. "We've never locked ourselves into a yearly number."
Lawmakers acted more resigned than angry yesterday, not just about the new construction but also the repairs needed after Hurricane Irene, as well as the earthquake the same week.
The hurricane led to school closures in Newark and Paterson, and the earthquake left a century-old Camden school with buckling outer walls that forced its closure as well. That school had already been taking students from another Camden school that was closed and slated for replacement by the SDA that has yet to happen.
Larkins went through the details of the SDA's response in each case, as discussion delved into specifics of the SDA's role in such immediate repairs and intricacies of insurance and federal reimbursements.
State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), who chaired the meeting, said he did not blame Larkins and put the onus more on the governor's office. He said Larkins has largely been responsive to his committee.
"He has to bring the good news and the bad news," Rice said. 'And we have to appreciate that he keeps coming to us. It is our job with the legislators to do more to press the administration."