Within two months of his appointment, the Schools Development Authority’s new executive director Charles McKenna has cleared five new projects for construction, kick-started the long-stalled Trenton High School, and opened the way to fast-track school projects in Newark and Camden.
For a school construction agency accused of stalling, if not blocking work, in the past four years under Gov. Chris Christie, the appointment of McKenna this winter at least appears to have opened the spigot in a short time.
Whether that change is lasting is yet to be seen, but in an interview last week, McKenna said it was more about making the most of work that was the pipeline already rather than any special push in Christie’s second term.
Still, the former chief counsel to Christie also acknowledged some things have moved a little quicker.
“When the governor gave me this job, he said he wanted me to do something about Trenton right away,” McKenna said of the high school project. “He didn’t say what it needed to be, but it’s why I reached out to them.”
The gesture was not entirely unexpected. With Christie’s shift of former SDA director Marc Larkins to state comptroller and his move of McKenna into the construction agency's top post, many saw a signal that the SDA would be entering a new phase.
Coming as Christie moved into a second term with an eye on the White House, and now facing turmoil over the George Washington Bridge scandal, the expectations have only risen that it will be a different SDA. McKenna, a former member of Christie’s inner circle, is among those facing subpoenas in the Legislature’s investigation of the scandal.
Still, McKenna said there has been no seismic shift at the authority, just a natural progression. “It’s not a new chapter as much as just moving along what Marc put in place,” he said.
He said projects would still be vetted individually, and he offered little solace to those who have challenged -- in the press and the courts -- the SDA’s slow progress on emergent school repairs.
And even after clearing five new projects to add to the capital list, he made no promises of more to come in the near future. The SDA board added projects in Irvington, East Orange, Pemberton, Vineland, and Plainfield -- the first to be added in two years.
“We’ll take these five projects and then see where we are,” McKenna said.
The emergent projects -- districts have said there are as many as 300 unaddressed -- will also be taken as they come, he said, with the familiar argument that some will be up to local districts to address.
“There is still the question of what is our responsibility, and what is the district's,” he said.
McKenna also tempered expectations in Newark and Camden, where the two state-appointed superintendents have both said that new projects in their cities would move ahead under the SDA. Camden superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said it would be a major renovation to Camden High School. Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson said there would be $100 million in repairs forthcoming.
McKenna said he was only starting to look at the Camden High School renovation, and he acknowledged that each Newark project would still need to be reviewed in its own right.
“Everything has to be weighed,” he said of Newark. “We are confident that we can address their needs, but we can’t say $100 million is committed.”
Little in McKenna’s start has quelled criticism that the SDA and the Christie administration have failed to live up to its court-ordered charge to repair the decrepit state of school facilities in its poorest communities.
The Education Law Center, the Newark-based organization that led the Abbott v. Burke litigation, hasagainst the state’s Department of Education for failing to put in place updated facilities plans in the 31 districts falling under Abbott. The plans are critical to laying out the needs for the SDA to address.
“The district's [facility plans] are seriously out of date, rendering them useless for assessing facilities conditions and needs and for making decisions about whether to repair, renovate, replace, or close school buildings," said Elizabeth Athos, a senior attorney at ELC, in a press release this month.
The ELC has also been among those long critical of the SDA’s expensive administrative overhead at a time when few projects have come to fruition. It put out an analysis in late January that found the SDA had spent close to $150 million in administrative costs over the past four years, while no projects have gone from start to finish in that time.
"For four years, the SDA has spent tens of millions on executive pay, lawyers, office space, and public relations with almost nothing to show for it," said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director.
McKenna tried to speak to the criticism last week, saying that the SDA’s unique role inflates its costs. The SDA includes a design division that goes beyond just administrative costs.
“Some complain about our administrative costs, but we operate differently than other agencies,” he said, adding the overall payroll has dropped by nearly a third in the last four years.
And he said the four-year timeframe required for a project to go from start to finish has precluded many from completion as yet under Christie’s watch. “I think we are moving a lot of different projects, but they don’t happen overnight,” he said.
Nonetheless, McKenna said he hears the complaints from critics and also local communities and does not dismiss them out of hand. He said a new analysis of the district’s long-range needs will be underway in the coming months.
“We will embark on a long-range planning process that will look at the costs forecasted, and what is the agency’s capability to meet them,” he said.
“There will always be those who complain, rightfully complain, and we will work with them.”