SDA Board Tells New Director to Move Fast on Construction

Schools Development Authority seeks action on projects that in some cases have been stalled for years

Continued delays in New Jersey’s multibillion-dollar school construction program are testing the patience of the Schools Development Authority’s own board.

The SDA’s new director, Marc Larkins, told the board at its monthly meeting yesterday that it could be another four months before projects in its target urban districts can begin anew, as the SDA reviews the priority list it devised in 2008.

The board didn’t contest the timeline but made clear to Larkins that he needed to move as expeditiously as possible, given that projects have already been delayed for months, if not years.

“I do think that it’s very important that the review get done very, very quickly,” said Barry Zubrow, the board’s chairman, after the meeting. “I think it’s important that this is quickly wrestled to the ground, so we can open up the work flow to some of these places.”

Larkins, a former federal assistant prosecutor appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, said he hoped the review of the SDA’s 2008 capital plan would ultimately save time and money.

“The goal of this review is to try to streamline this process,” Larkins said. “So while people will complain on the front end about delay, our hope is that on the back end that we will save time and taxpayer dollars in the way we deliver our program.”

The fate of the capital plan has been a major concern for the 30 urban districts with projects on the list. From Newark and Paterson to Camden and Vineland, the districts fall under the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings that demanded billions in new construction and renovations in their schools.

Currently, there are 52 school projects on the list, but virtually all were put on hold when Christie took office and ordered an agency-wide review of SDA’s practices and policies.

The SDA has been under a cloud for much of its history, facing questions of waste and mismanagement as it spent down $8 billion in initial funding without completing a vast majority of it promised projects.

Among his first tasks, Larkins said, is to review the 2008 capital plan to insure all the projects should remain on the priority list or whether others should be moved up.

He said population and enrollment needs had changed in some communities that may make other projects more important. He also said the review would look at how the projects get completed, whether each is designed from scratch, whether even new policies for grade configurations of the schools should be weighed.

“We now have K-5, K-8 and even some K-3,” Larkins said. “The idea is there could be some policy decisions we need to make during the review.”

That review is to begin this month, but Larkins said the Christie administration and the state Department of Education needed to first sign off on the guidelines that would be used in the review. He made no guarantees that even the four-month timeline would be met.

Zubrow, the board chairman, said he hoped that wouldn’t be the case.

“I appreciate that you can’t control the response time of your colleagues, but you are the administration, and one of your jobs is to make sure they are laser-focused on this,” he told Larkins at the meeting.

Zubrow also stressed that the board’s review of the capital plan in 2008 was thorough. “We want to make sure we don’t create impression that the prior plan was in any way flawed,” he said.

Others on the board were worried that further delays are only going to cost the SDA more money, especially in the two dozen projects for which design work has begun.

“We have invested millions in design, and stopping them, there is a cost to that,” said member Joseph McNamara. “We will be asked about that, and we have to be prepared to talk about that.

“This is a very delicate balance and review taking place,” he said.