With Few Shovels in the Ground, SDA Continues to Spend

Review of agency's $50 million budget reveals well-paid staff, with some salaries above $100,000

When top officials of the Schools Development Authority (SDA) went before an Assembly committee last month, one of the prominent questions was how the agency was spending its money while it had virtually halted any new construction projects.

The agency has a total budget of about $50 million, with a staff of more than 300 people, and Democratic Assembly members in particular poked at where the money was going with so few shovels in the ground.

SDA Shares Salaries

At the request of NJ Spotlight, the SDA last week released its payroll for all 308 employees, as well as its new organizational chart, which it said would lead to a leaner and more efficient operation once construction projects restart.

In the seven pages of names and salaries, the payroll showed a pretty well-paid corporate structure, with nearly 50 of the employees pulling down $100,000 or more, led by chief executive officer Marc Larkins at $195,000.

It also showed a department still in flux, where months after launching a reorganization that Larkins said would lead to a more collaborative approach in how the SDA does business, a vast majority of employees still had no official job titles.

Larkins in an interview on Monday played down the uncertainty of job titles, saying most of his staff was in defined positions. He added it was more a matter of putting job descriptions in place.

“Restructuring will be ongoing for a while in terms of staffing,” he said.

“Night and Day”

Hired by Christie last spring to shake up the scandal-plagued agency, the former federal prosecutor stressed the structure of the organization was “night and day” from its previous incarnation and would bode well for the agency as it gears up new projects in 2011.

Larkins, at Christie’s behest, has put on hold more than 50 school projects in the state’s biggest urban districts, as the SDA reviews how the projects were selected and how they can be made more cost-efficient.

“When I arrived, we were very fragmented and compartmentalized, each division with its own hierarchy,” he said. “We went from a department approach to a more team approach.”

As for the pay, though, Larkins was more circumspect, saying that many of the higher salaries were products of a more robust economy, especially in the construction trades from which the SDA drew its architects, engineers and project managers.

“There was a time when business was hot, and in order to attract talent, we had to come up with compensation that was comparable,” he said. “I think it remains probably still appropriate for the [construction] business, but I also recognize we work for state government.”

Unhappy Advocates

Among local educators and advocates who have been waiting for the SDA’s promised school construction to restart in cities like Newark, Paterson and Camden, word of well-paid executives sounded alarms.

“Thousands of Paterson children sit in substandard classrooms while adults who are supposed to help them draw very good salaries for dragging their collective feet,” said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund and among the SDA’s loudest critics. “It’s disgraceful.”

David Sciarra, head of the Education Law Center, which first brought the Abbott v. Burke lawsuit that led to the construction program, called the situation a “scandal of epic proportions.”

“SDA is loaded with high-paid bureaucrats sitting around doing nothing,” he said. “At the same time, the governor’s order to stop school construction has trapped thousands of students in crumbling, dangerous school buildings.”

Larkins conceded his own pay and that of his executive team exceeds that of the state education commissioner and other cabinet officials, capped at $141,000. Gov. Chris Christie lately has made much of his own salary of $175,000, using that as justification for capping school district superintendent salaries to no more than the same amount.

“I think as we move forward, we could scale some of it back and make salaries more comparable with other departments,” Larkins said.

But Larkins said he was not looking to scale back his payroll dramatically, as the SDA stays on schedule to restart much of its work in January.

“What gets lost is we are down 10 percent of our staffing from when I started,” he said. “That’s 30 people who don’t have jobs.”

And while Larkins said there may be some more reductions coming, he maintained that the SDA needed to remain prepared for the work ahead.

“What doesn’t make sense is rushing to trim staff when we’re not sure what we’ll be doing,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance.”