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SDA to Announce Nearly 80 Urgent Projects It Is Moving Ahead On

Schools Development Authority faces criticism and possible lawsuit over delays.

Kick-starting a long-delayed program, the Christie administration is expected to announce today it is moving ahead with nearly 80 "emergent" repair projects in more than 20 of the state's neediest school districts.

Leaders of the Schools Development Authority plan hold a press conference in Harrison this morning to announce that reviews were completed on 300 requested projects across the state, from structural repairs to new boilers to fortifying masonry.

The press conference comes at a time when the SDA is facing rising criticism -- and a possible lawsuit -- over the slow pace of the repair work that many have called urgent for health and safety reasons.

SDA officials said that the state Department of Education determined that 76 projects should be deemed as "emergent" -- needing expedited work due to health and safety concerns.

The bulk of the work will be in Newark, with 31 projects in 24 schools. There are also six projects in Jersey City, six in Camden, five in Irvington and three in Trenton.

The remainder of the 300 projects fall into a variety of less-urgent categories, officials said, including "routine maintenance" and "capital maintenance."

The determinations come as the SDA has been widely criticized for stalling the court-ordered work over the past year. Districts have submitted more than 700 requests since last May.

The SDA is also under fire for its failure to break ground on any major construction projects in the past two years in any of the 31 districts falling under the order of the state Supreme Court in the Abbott v. Burke case. The SDA has announced more than 20 projects would proceed, with three now out to bid.

But the emergent projects have been a particular beef for critics, who maintain some of these situations put students in peril. Last night, David Sciarra of the Education Law Center in Newark, the group that brought the Abbott complaint, said it was preparing a lawsuit over the emergent projects and maintained it was a likely spur to the state's announcement.

"They only seem to move when there's a lawsuit or a threat of a lawsuit," Sciarra said yesterday.

"We will have to see what happens tomorrow, but we are still prepared to file suit," he said. "This action comes because they were aware that that we were preparing to file suit over this entire issue."

He said it didn't help that the SDA's list was titled "potential" projects for "potential advancement."

"They are very good at putting projects on lists and doing nothing," he said.

In a draft of the press release going out today, the Christie administration maintains that the overhaul of the beleaguered SDA was necessary for these projects to proceed. Much of the past six months has been taken up by a tighter review of each requested project, including site visits, they said.

"The emergent program is another example of the reform effort underway at SDA under CEO Marc Larkins," the draft read. "Prior to the Christie Administration, funds available for emergent projects had been nearly exhausted and the process for review was not nearly comprehensive enough to ensure that only the most critical projects across the state were being addressed."

The administration last year allocated $100 million for the emergent work once it resumed, it continued, "to further support this program and … a commitment to change business as usual by requiring a thorough review process."

The head of facilities for Newark Public Schools, Steve Morlino, said this weekend that he welcomed the projects being cleared. The list includes repairs to crumbling masonry at more than a dozen schools that have led to years of sidewalk scaffolding around the schools to protect children and passersby.

"Glad to hear some of these projects are getting underway," Morlino wrote in an email.

Morlino said there are plenty of challenges ahead, including fitting all in over the coming summer when the work must be completed. He hoped a more consistent schedule was coming as well.

"It would be less costly to do these projects on a maintenance schedule, instead of the added cost of doing collateral repairs caused by deferring the work," he wrote. "We could put a lot of people to work as a result."

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