Christie Releases Millions More in School Construction Funds

About $270 million is OK’d for 177 districts -- but districts in urban areas still wait for their share

Add nearly 200 more school districts to the list of those receiving state school construction funds, as the administration of Gov. Chris Christie yesterday continued to roll out construction and repair money following a halt to the program earlier this year.

But New Jersey’s urban districts still face a wait of at least several more months, with an administration spokesman saying it will likely be end of October before a review of district needs is completed.

The Governor yesterday announced that $270 million in additional funds will be made available to 177 districts for 740 separate maintenance and construction projects. Another $16 million was provided to six vocational districts.

All the projects will need to go through final reviews to secure the state funding, which will account for up to 40 percent of the total cost.

This was the third round of new projects getting the go-ahead since Christie resumed school construction funding in May with a $500 million infusion of new borrowing.

Christie had essentially halted projects in January, saying in his first months of office that he wanted to review the operations of the Schools Development Authority and its checkered history of waste and mismanagement.

The Governor yesterday pitched much of the latest round in economic development terms. He said the projects would provide 6,000 new construction jobs, and the vocational projects specifically would help in job training.

“The state grants we’re providing to vocational districts will allow critical projects to move forward and give New Jerseyans the necessary tools to find quality and meaningful jobs,” Christie said in a statement.

But the pace has been slower in urban districts, for which the school construction program was first created in 2000 by order of the state Supreme Court.

These districts receive 100 percent of their construction funding through the state, with the state overseeing the entire project as well, and their progress has come in fits and starts.

SDA executive director Marc Larkins said this spring that he first wanted to review the existing capital plan for the 30 qualifying urban districts, completed in 2008, to ensure all the projects were still needed.

He said in early June that it would take four months. Agency spokesman Larry Hanover said yesterday that it will now be the end of October before that review is completed.

“We’re moving expeditiously while keeping in mind that this has to be done right to ensure it is appropriate and efficient use of available money,” Hanover said.

Advocates for the urban districts reacted with frustration and some anger at the timeline, saying it seems to creep longer and longer while projects first proposed nearly a decade ago continue to wait.

For instance, a site for the new elementary school in Paterson was first identified in 2003 and remediated in 2005, with ground broken in 2006. It was also on the 2008 capital plan. Two years later, the site remains a largely vacant lot, said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund.

“There’s a shovel and little piece of concrete there, but nothing that looks anything like a school,” she said. “I’m delighted that he’s released money for the vocational schools now, but what about us?”