SDA Cautions School Districts Eager to Move Ahead on Pending Projects

John Mooney | September 22, 2010 | Education
School Development Authority says new construction may wait for 2011, hints at move away from early childhood centers

New Jersey’s on-again, off-again school construction program went on the road yesterday, as legislators traveled to Camden County to hear complaints from districts that have been awaiting projects for years.

Given the purpose of the meeting, the Christie administration announced more sobering news about the state’s beleaguered school construction program.

Marc Larkins, head of the Schools Development Authority (SDA), indicated new projects in targeted urban districts are virtually certain not to restart in 2010. Larkins also hinted there may be a rethinking of priorities in general, including a possible move away from early childhood centers.

The bulk of the testimony before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools came from districts themselves. Each offered what has become a familiar refrain since Gov. Chris Christie put a halt to new projects in New Jersey’s urban districts, pending review of the state’s 2008 capital plan.

Exhibit A was Gloucester City’s Mary E. Costello Elementary School, where the committee held the hearing yesterday. The city has been waiting for eight years for a replacement to the 100-year-old school, even buying out 70 properties for a new site three blocks away.

“It’s obviously a sore spot for the community and continues to be,” said superintendent Paul Spaventa.

He described cramped classrooms, decrepit wiring and climate controls and hundreds of thousands spent on maintenance every year to keep roofs from leaking and codes enforced, including a recent order to install fire sprinklers in the basement.

“That’s more money, a few hundred thousand dollars just to keep it up to code,” he said.

Environmental Contamination

There was testimony from other local officials, including those from nearby Camden City, where the district is waiting for three new schools on the current list.

One project is to replace a school where officials said the students can’t play outside due to environmental contamination in the soil. The city’s high school is also up for replacement, where science labs were last renovated 60 years ago, officials reported.

“The average age of our schools is 70 years, and that’s including four new schools,” said Wendy Kunz, Camden’s facilities director. “We have one building that’s 150 years old, from before the Civil War. And it looks it.”

Unhappy News

The star attraction of the hearing was definitely Marc Larkins, chief executive officer of the SDA.

Larkins was unabashed in repeating his own familiar refrain: The SDA is revisiting its work under the capital plan to ensure the money is well-spent. The review of the capital plan continues as planned.

And then he added some unfamiliar and decidedly unwelcome news: A new SDA project plan may not even be public until 2011.

Larkins said more schools could be included, not less, although likely for less money. But he also said there may be a move from the emphasis on early childhood centers. Eleven of the 52 projects now under review are early childhood centers, including in Burlington City, Pemberton, Passaic and Jersey City.

“In the history of the program, there has been a heavy, heavy emphasis on early childhood centers,” Larkins said. “I’m not sure how that will play out under this administration.”

An Untenable Project

Testifying in the school’s auditorium, Larkins pointed to the Gloucester City project as the kind of project that may be untenable.

The new Gloucester City school, which would expand to serve as the middle school as well as an elementary school, is estimated to cost $67 million, including the land acquisitions. The state has spent $13 million already, officials said.

“It will be a fabulous school, I’m sure, but the question is how many $67 million elementary schools can the state afford to build?” Larkins asked.

Larkins said he agrees with the vast need across the state for modernized school building. He also indicated that the $12.4 billion authorized by the legislature in the last decade will not be enough.

The program was born out of the 1998 Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings, targeting 31 urban districts but also setting aside grants for suburban districts. The state has so far spent about $8 billion of that $12.4 billion, he said, including more than 600 projects in the urban districts. That leaves $3.9 billion still to be borrowed and spent, he said.

“There is no way $3.9 billion will meet the statewide need, no way,” Larkins said.

But Larkins again put the emphasis on cost-savings and determining what the state can afford. “At the end of the day, it will be an economics question.”

At the End of their Patience

Legislators attending the meeting — virtually all of them Democrats — gave Larkins some leeway but also indicated their own patience was running out.

Chairing the meeting, state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) questioned why the review process was taking so long, adding that not one groundbreaking on an SDA project had occurred since Christie took office.

“You say it’s about economics, but no, it’s about education,” Norcross told Larkins. “I think if it was your child waiting for a school, I’d think you would want to move quicker.”

Norcross was among those also worried by Larkins’ comment that early childhood programs could be among those sacrificed, when they have been heralded as one of the success stories of the Abbott rulings. David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center that has led the Abbott litigation, said statute required early childhood centers to be a priority, leaving little discretion.

“Once again, the administration says one thing, and the legislature another,” Norcross said afterward.

But Norcross said he was left most troubled by the fact that the shovels remain out of the ground for another year.

“By any measurement, there will be no new construction in 2010 and maybe even 2011,” he said. “That is significant.”