State Audit Raises New Questions About New Jersey’s $12 Billion School Construction Program

Report says critical school construction put on hold to ensure every eligible district had at least one project underway

A state audit has raised new questions about the 2008 master plan for the next phase of New Jersey’s $12 billion school construction program, saying it may not represent the greatest needs in the state, after all.

Quietly released last week, the report by State Auditor Stephen Eells appeared to back the Christie administration’s ongoing review of the Schools Development Authority’s capital plan, a review that has essentially stalled more than 50 projects in the state’s poorest cities.

The report found that school projects gauged as being critical were skipped over in the 2008 capital plan, largely due to rules that projects underway get first priority and that every eligible district see at least one project included.

In Elizabeth, for instance, where state officials said nearly 3,000 new primary grade seats are needed, a new elementary school was left off the list while a less critical project was included from Long Branch, where the deficit was only about 600 seats, the report said.

And the Long Branch project ended up with its own problems.

“This project, which was the only one received by the district, also involves the demolition and replacement of a school that the [SDA] paid over $3 million to renovate,” the audit said.

The audit also examined how millions of dollars in contract “change orders” were processed at the SDA, long a target of criticism for waste and mismanagement, including from Gov. Chris Christie.

The audit found some continued deficiencies, but by and large, said the SDA has improved much of its practices from a previous audit in 2006.

SDA officials yesterday would not comment on the auditor’s specific findings and instead issued a broad statement of general support.

“In pursuing a planned review to update the 2008 Capital Plan, the SDA looks forward to incorporating the State Auditor’s current findings and recommendations,” the statement read.

“The SDA remains committed to ensuring that the most critical projects across the state advance while exercising fiscal responsibility.”

But not all were pleased, as advocates from districts that may have been shortchanged in the 2008 plan were now worried their slimmer winnings could be in peril.

Paterson, for example, hoped for 10 different school projects to be on the priority list but was only allowed a maximum of four. Construction of a new elementary school finally broke ground late last year, before Christie suspended any further work.

“At this rate, we won’t get it done until 2012,” said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund. “Every time we take a step back to the drawing board, we lose another year for these children.”

In Elizabeth, the only project now on the list is a new magnet high school. But officials said four new high schools are needed, not to mention the elementary school needs.

“We’re not surprised the auditor has found these things;” said Donald Goncalves, the district’s spokesman. “These were the cold years, the ice age for getting anything done. But as we move forward, we just ask for fairness.”