Larkins, Schools Development Authority, Grilled on Long-Overdue Construction

John Mooney | October 15, 2010 | Education
Legislators want to know why 50+ planned and promised projects have yet to be built

The entrance to the Schools Development Authority is tucked between a regal bank and a Christian Science Reading Room on Trenton’s West State Street, a tight space that belies the money and stakes at play behind its glass doors.

The agency has an annual budget of $52 million dollars, with about 310 employees spread across the upper floors of the bank building and other locations. More notably, it has overseen more than $8 billion in school construction projects since its inception in 2000.

But yesterday the attention was turned to what the agency hasn’t completed. Legislators — both Democrats and Republicans — voiced their frustration over mounting complaints about the SDA’s continued hold on 52 projects planned and promised in some of the state’s neediest cities for much of the past decade.

Four schools in Jersey City, five in Newark where the average age is 85 years old, a new high school in Phillipsburg, where now half the students take classes in 31 temporary trailers.

‘A Bipartisan Screw-up’

“This is a bipartisan screw-up,” said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly Education Committee. “Not just Democrats or Republicans. It is just bizarre.”

And the Republicans this time largely agreed. Assemblyman Joseph Malone (R-Burlington) was more sympathetic to the ongoing review process, but he too was clear in his frustration that it shouldn’t be holding up projects clearly in need.

‘We need to get these schools built, people to work,” he said. “It’s just mind-boggling. It’s been four or five years.”

Pleading for Patience

Marc Larkins, the chief operating officer of the SDA, pleaded for patience from the legislators. He explained a process now in its fourth month: reviewing a 2008 capital plan of the 52 school projects for both their priority and appropriateness.

A former assistant federal prosecutor, Larkins was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to clean up the long embattled agency and moved immediately to revisit the capital plan set by former Gov. Jon Corzine and the legislature.

He said a draft of that review would be completed in “a couple of weeks” and presentation of a revised plan would be ready early in the new year. He said there would likely be some additions and subtractions.

“Some here may not be on the list, and there are others out there not now included that will be included,” he said.

The Newark Wasteland

But Democrats, especially, questioned why the review was needed in the first place, after a similar needs assessment in 2008. And there were plenty of horror stories, like the entire neighborhood seized for a new school in Newark and now a vacant “wasteland,” said Assemblyman Ralph R. Caputo (D-Essex).

“I don’t know what we tell them anymore,” he said. “What excuse do we give?”

Larkins said he understood the frustration, but said it was the product of a flawed process in which the agency was in “rush to build” and did not follow best practices in design and construction.

He cited the lack of any standards for common components to a school, like a gymnasium or science lab, and he said the previous administrations made promises they could not keep.

“We’d like to present a plan we can actually deliver,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have that.”

But Diegnan did not let up, questioning what was happening at the agency when virtually all of its major projects were on hold. He quizzed Larkins on his payroll, which he estimated was about $40 million.

“So we are spending $40 million and have 49 projects where no action has been taken for 10 months?” Diegnan asked.

Don’t Quit Now

Following Larkins, several districts’ facilities officials testified that to quit any of these projects would be a mistake. The head of the Education Law Center, which led the Abbott v. Burke school equity litigation, said the SDA’s own records show $236 million already spent on these projects.

“I don’t know how we could possibly walk away from them now,” he said. “It would be a phenomenal waste of money.”

Officials in Phillipsburg said their new high school project — at a total cost of $88 million — has already been reviewed and revised several times. Following a groundbreaking in 2009 that still waits the real building, erosion on the planned site has grown so severe that holding ponds are breached and trenches are now 15 feet deep, officials said.

“We are pleading for our district,” George Chando, the assistant superintendent and the high school’s former principal. “For every district that deserves this, for what we are so close to having.”