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SDA Qualifies Latest Project List -- Much to Critics' Frustration

Authority admits it probably can't finish, or even start, all of its projects in near future.

The Schools Development Authority yesterday announced it will start on a list of 76 projects required to address health and safety issues in some of New Jersey's neediest districts.

Just don't count on all of them starting -- or wrapping up -- anytime soon.

The list of so-called emergent projects had been a long time coming, culled from 700 requests made last summer by the 31 urban districts falling under the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings.

More than a third of the projects announced yesterday are in Newark, another six in Jersey City, and six in Camden. They range from repairing boilers to shoring up masonry.

In all, SDA officials said the work could cost close to the $100 million currently allotted for the program.

But at a presentation in a Harrison middle school, SDA chief executive Marc Larkins conceded that many of the projects will require considerably more work to get started, let alone completed, since some need design, engineering, or other preparations.

When asked specifically if everything would be completed this summer -- a critical window since students are out of the buildings -- Larkins said it was highly doubtful.

That didn't appease SDA critics, including those threatening to file suit against the state agency and the Christie administration for delaying a program that has largely been on hold for much of the past year.

State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) said he was pleased the projects looked to be proceeding, if indeed they were. But he also said that many of these projects are in buildings that the SDA was charged with replacing in a program that itself was on hold.

"If they were as good at building schools as putting out announcements, we wouldn't have issues," Norcross said yesterday.

David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation, said he would review the details released today but would not rule out the ELC challenging the SDA in state appellate court.

"If this is just another list of potential projects or ones they say they'll have to discuss with districts, we won't hesitate to go to court to get these started and done," he said. "We're beyond the discussion stage. They know what needs to be done."

The SDA sent letters to 21 districts yesterday, detailing the status of all of their requests and assigning each project to one of four categories: routine maintenance, capital maintenance, capital facilities, and emergent.

The first two categories contain work that is to be left to the districts, including some that Larkins said might be deemed "emergency" needs. "Those are ones the districts need to address," he said.

But in what has sometimes been a vexing debate over the difference between emergent and emergency, Larkins said the emergent projects are not necessarily as urgent. He said districts will need to address the emergency situations, many of which he indicated were brought on by not conducting routine maintenance.

"The state wants to be as responsive as we can, so we tell them that it is either emergent and we will consider it or no it is routine maintenance and you need to address it now," Larkins said.

Larkins appeared prepared for the ongoing criticism, but said the SDA was doing its best to ensure the needs were met and the money well spent. He said the SDA last year separately started 32 previously approved emergent projects and completed 27 of them.

"The idea that the program stopped or shut down is really not based in facts," he said. "We at the SDA have taken our time, but taken our time to do it right."

Not all were so critical of the SDA. The superintendent of Harrison schools who hosted Larkins yesterday said he was glad at least one of his requests was on the list. The project for Harrison will be structural repairs to its mechanical room, where a deep and long crack was evident in the wall. Turned down were a couple of roof repairs.

"Those were more doable for us, they are roofing projects and are more straightforward," said superintendent James Doran. "These structural issues [in the mechanical room] are more complicated for us, and we don't have the expertise."

Approved or not, was he concerned about the pace of the work in general?

"Any superintendent would say we'd like it done yesterday, but we also realize there is a process to go through," said Doran. "I'm saying that from the perspective of one who got selected, of course."

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