A State Auditor report in 2010 gave the Christie administration the evidence it needed to revamp the way the Schools Development Authority (SDA) prioritizes construction projects in New Jersey's highest-poverty districts.
According to the report, the rankings under the Corzine administration had been ill-advised in several regards.
Now the auditor's office is back with a new report. It credits the SDA with improving its ranking system but points out it may have an unintended consequence: more pressing projects that don't lend themselves to standardized designs are put on hold.
That finding has only added to the growing criticism of the authority's glacial pace of projects. The SDA has yet to start any new construction in the 31 districts falling under the $8 billion program ordered by the Abbott v. Burke school equity case a decade ago.
The State Auditor, a branch of the legislature, said in its report released Friday that the SDA had crafted a new system in its latest capital plan that was an improvement from the previous plan, following criteria based on both educational need and efficiency.
But the question arose as to how those criteria were then applied, wrote State Auditor Stephen Eells, with just 10 projects so far getting the go-ahead.
"By advancing lower-priority projects because they support standardization, there is the potential for more educationally critical projects not being completed with the current funding," Eells wrote.
Assistant Auditor John Termyna, who worked on the report, said both the SDA and the state Department of Education bore some responsibility for devising a new system that didn't set clear enough priorities on educational need.
"They didn't do anything wrong, but they may not be doing it the way that the legislature intended," he said in an interview. "The No. 1 priority is on standardization, and everything else is taking a back seat."
In response, SDA executive director Marc Larkins yesterday emphasized the auditor's finding that the new system of ranking projects had cleaned up past discrepancies. But he disputed its claim that needed projects would be bypassed.
The SDA is preparing to release its blueprint of design and construction standards, he said, starting with infrastructure and moving to entire schools.
"We don't conceded that higher-priority projects won't be addressed," Larkins said yesterday in an interview. "The standardization will help us save money and to complete more projects.
"We think the standards will only help, not hinder," he said.
But critics of the SDA and the administration said the report only reinforces their months of criticism that the SDA is stalling in launching new projects, to the detriment of students who remain in substandard buildings.
"The fact of the matter is that in two years that this governor has been in office, not one new school has started," said State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden). "If a child started school in a crumbling structure, they'll have graduated and be out of school at the pace they're going."
He cited an SDA project in Gloucester City where 70 properties were taken for a new middle school, only to languish.
"The residents lost homes and lost businesses to make way for a new school, and now they have lost a new school," he said.
David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center (ELC), which first brought the Abbott v. Burke case, said he has heard of districts being told to start looking for alternatives to their projects.
"The state is under a court order to fix these buildings in a reasonable time and reasonable fashion," he said. "Instead, the SDA has stopped them all and thrown them off the list."
When asked whether the ELC would challenge the administration in court under the Abbott ruling, he said there would be a push in the communities and the legislature to press the projects.
"The last thing is we will have to step up on the legal front," he said. "All of these things will come together, and it is starting to happen."