NJ’s School Construction Program Gets Rolling Again

John Mooney | May 12, 2010

New Jersey’s massive school construction program is rolling again, promising once more that the state will get it right this time.

Marc Larkins , the new executive director of the Schools Development Authority, made his first appearance before the legislature yesterday and said that a recent infusion of $500 million in new bonding has put the SDA back in the black, or at least close.

Larkins, in his second month as head of the state agency, said the SDA was working on finishing 12 projects underway—from Camden to Paterson—and continuing with 50 other projects in various stages of development. He added that the SDA would soon finalize funding commitments on 150 more.

“I am optimistic about the program, and the opportunity it has to do a lot of good throughout the state,” Larkins told the Joint Committee on the Public Schools.

Pleased With the Progress

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), co-chairman of the committee, said he was pleased with the progress under Larkins.

“Still, is it all we need to do? Of course not, based on the ills we still face across the state,” he said after the hearing. “But he’s given us a comfort level.”

It has been a rocky history for the SDA since its creation in 2001 (then named the Schools Construction Corporation).

Established to carry out the state Supreme Court’s order for billions in new school construction and renovation in the state’s poorest districts, the then-SCC mired down in questions of waste and mismanagement and eventually ran out of money— without completing the bulk of promised projects.

Abbott v. Burke

The agency is to pay the full cost, as well as oversees the construction and design, for projects in the 31 specified urban districts under the Abbott v. Burke ruling. In non-Abbott districts, it pays up to 40 percent of the costs but does not oversee construction.

Upon taking office in 2006, former Gov. Jon Corzine added new controls and revamped the agency—including the new name—as projects began anew. But Gov. Chris Christie put much the program back on hold this winter, and he installed Larkins, a former assistant U.S. attorney, to bring in still more controls. The governor cited a Burlington High
School project that saw close to $20 million in change orders and cost overruns.

Since its inception, the agency has been authorized for $12.4 billion in work, with about $8 billion spent so far on 621 projects in Abbott districts and about 3,000 elsewhere.

Larkins yesterday said a “top to bottom” review continues in the agency, including of its internal procedures and also the projects it has approved under its 2008 master plan. The plan calls for 53 projects across the Abbott districts.

“Part of it is we want to streamline that, so we can do some of these projects a little quicker,” he said.

$500 Million Bonding

But he said the SDA was proceeding with existing projects and he was confident more money would be forthcoming from the Christie administration to tackle new ones. The Treasury authorized the bonding of the $500 million in April.

“We’re excited that the governor has seen fit to support this program,” he said. “And it’s one that will be the first step in an expressed commitment to providing state-of-the-art and adequate educational facilities throughout state.”

Putting to rest worries that have surfaced in suburban districts as well, he said the SDA is committed to pay for projects in all non-Abbott districts that have approved school construction referenda through local votes, as long as they meet their own obligations and requirements.

“Our anticipation is to execute on those grants in the very near very future, and that will mean a commitment on behalf of the state that we will fund those projects,” he said.

Local Concerns

That has not always been the sense from local districts, as the state’s fiscal crisis has led to steep cuts in their direct school aid from Trenton and nagging questions whether the state would help pay for construction projects.

Ridgewood’s voters in December approved $48 million in projects to all 10 of its school buildings, including expansions to four of them. The state was to pay $12 million of the total, but the district was getting mixed signals over the winter as to whether that would happen.

“With a new governor and everything that was going on with the budget, we were very concerned,” said Daniel Fishbein, the district’s superintendent.

But he said the district in the last month has received affirmation that the state would pay its share. “We should be opening bids later this month,” he said.