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Schools Development Authority: Progress or Peril?

SDA counts 10 capital projects moving ahead; others see a stall.

The SDA's replacement of Paterson's P.S. 16 is among the projects that have advanced.

The Schools Development Authority yesterday tried to put the best face on its progress, announcing plans for more emergency work and detailing the status of 10 ongoing capital projects that are moving ahead.

But the challenge for the beleaguered agency remains that none of the large projects are actually in the ground yet, leading to another number that the Democrats are starting to trot out.

“To date, the SDA has not started to build one new school in the last 34 months,” said state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), a longtime critic of the SDA’s sluggish pace.

The authority's streak could end next month, when it says it will break ground on a new elementary school in Long Branch. It would be the first new school actually under construction since Gov. Chris Christie effectively shut down the court-ordered program and revamped its leadership and operations.

In the meantime, the SDA is relying on small steps to demonstrate that its work is indeed moving forward, a problem that not only faces political criticism but is starting to draw some legal challenges as well.

Yesterday, the news was that the SDA had agreed on eight more emergency repair projects, fixing everything from leaking roofs to falling masonry to obsolete boilers. On top of 40 emergent projects completed in the past two years, SDA officials contended that this administration had done more emergent work than any previous one.

“This Administration is equally committed to repairing and rehabilitating existing school buildings as it is to rebuilding those that need to be replaced,” said Marc Larkins, the SDA’s chief executive, in a statement.

In addition, the SDA released a list of 10 major projects that were advertised for work or awarded contracts in the past two months, saying that the major construction that the SDA was created to complete is beginning to move ahead again.

The projects where either contracts were awarded or advertised in the past two months are the following:

  • Camden -- Morgan Village School Demolition
  • Elizabeth -- Elizabeth High School Construction Phase 2
  • Jersey City -- ES #3 Early Site Preparation
  • Jersey City -- PS #20 Early Site Preparation
  • Long Branch -- Catrambone Elementary School Construction
  • New Brunswick -- A. Chester Redshaw Elementary School Design-Build
  • Newark -- Oliver Street Elementary School Early Site Preparation
  • Paterson -- Marshall Street Elementary School Early Site Preparation
  • Paterson -- PS #16 Demolition
  • West New York -- Demolition of the Warminster Building (part of the Harry L. Bain project)

Yet SDA officials said even the announcement of the new emergent work is not a guarantee that those projects will start this summer. It's now up to the local districts to determine schedules and do the actual procurement.

“It really depends on each project, depending on a number of factors such as whether children need to be out of the building,” said Edythe Maier, a spokeswoman.

In addition, the SDA will be doing 20 of its own emergent projects, but those are still in the final review stages, officials said.

The Christie administration has been under legal challenge over the slow progress on the emergent work, with the Education Law Center of Newark, an advocacy group representing low-income students, filing suit against the state Department of Education for failing to move the projects.

More than 700 projects in all have been listed by districts as being needed. The SDA and the education department winnowed that list to 76 this spring.

The ELC has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation that led to the school construction program in the first place, and its director, David Sciarra, yesterday decried any claims that the SDA was making progress.

"What SDA does work hard at is keeping urban school children trapped in crumbling, dangerous buildings, so the Christie Administration doesn't have to spend any money,” he said. “I pray that no child or teacher in these buildings gets injured or killed because of SDA inaction."

Many of the new construction projects are still a long way from seeing actual beams go up, with seven of the 10 listed projects either site preparation or demolition.

The Camden demolition, for instance, is of a school that was already replaced. And the West New York demolition of an old factory may not even clear the way for a new school, as talks are underway to renovate the existing school and not move onto the new site at all, officials said.

Norcross has led legislative hearings to press the SDA officials on their pace of work, including last month, and he conceded he wasn’t sure what to do next. He said that the SDA may have once required some reforms, when a rush of work led to charges of waste and mismanagement.

“But now we’ve gone to the other extreme, where nothing is going out the door,” he said.

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