The Schools Development Authority, An Agency Under Construction

The SDA's new budget gets the OK, but still no word as to what projects will get the green light

The New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA) has provided the first glimpse of what it will look like next year, as it both reinvents itself and restarts court-ordered school construction projects in some of the state’s neediest cities.

The SDA has yet to disclose what those projects will be, but at its December meeting the board approved a $47.4 million budget for 2011. That includes a small increase in some service and technical accounts but no additional staffing, and even pay freezes agency-wide.

The agency also approved new internal lines of authority that officials said would tighten the oversight and sign-off on construction projects, contracts and changes — large and small.

“The modifications proposed present stronger levels of control for many critical processes of the Authority,” wrote Susan Pacuta, a division director for program assessment and development, in the proposal to the board.

The new budget and the changes are all part of the SDA’s remaking of itself in the wake of accusations of waste and mismanagement five years ago.

Former governor Jon Corzine made significant changes inside the agency in charge of more than $10 billion in construction projects, including changing its name. But Gov. Chris Christie has turned up the heat, appointing a former federal prosecutor to run the agency and essentially halting all new work until new systems are in place.

The Frozen 53

The freeze of more than 50 projects once approved in 29 districts has frustrated local advocates, who have waited years for projects, some of them begun and halted midway.

Yesterday, an outspoken advocate in Paterson and frequent critic of the SDA said the release of a budget and internal controls did little to assuage her concerns that shovels are still not in the ground.

“Will the changes build schools any faster, and where’s the list of new projects?” said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund. “I just want to see our schools built.”

The SDA continues to work on a new facilities plan, replacing a 2008 plan that included the 53 projects, said spokesman Larry Hanover. He said the schedule remains on track to release the list shortly after the new year.

In addition, Hanover said much of the budget could also hinge on that facilities plan, with the possibility of further reductions in staff and also salaries once there is a clearer picture to the agency’s needs.

The SDA had come under fire from Democratic legislators last month for its top-heavy pay scale, with nearly 50 people making $100,000 or more, including chief executive officer Marc Larkins at $195,000. Christie had said he expected a new management plan could include some reductions in salaries and potentially more cuts in staffing.

In terms of both staffing and salaries, “the capital plan review will be a significant influence in what we look like going forward,” Hanover said yesterday.

“There won’t be changes until we are sure what the SDA looks like and what its needs are,” he said.

Might there be an increase in the budget if even more projects are required? “There could be reductions, but not increases,” Hanover said.

The budget is a 4 percent increase from 2010 spending, or roughly $2 million, Larkins said in his presentation to the board. About $1.2 million of that increase is for new software requirements around the new facilities plan and also anticipated increase in legal costs. The bulk of the rest will cover increases in employee benefit costs.

The budget represents a reduction of 32 full-time positions in the agency, all by attrition, bringing the total to 310 employees.