Room for Cuts Remain at Streamlined Schools Development Authority

John Mooney | February 18, 2011 | Education
NJ Spotlight reviews the authority's payroll to see where the money goes

When Gov. Chris Christie this week announced a restart of the state’s $12 billion school construction program, he praised the streamlining and efficiencies that have been realized at the authority overseeing the work.

The Schools Development Authority (SDA) since its inception a decade ago has been plagued by accusations of waste and mismanagement. The governor said his appointees there have begun cleaning it up.

But as the projects slowly crank up again, Christie acknowledged that more efficiencies are in order and called for still more cuts from an agency that just last month laid off 10 percent its workforce.

“We still have a staff that is much too large there,” Christie said.

He said the SDA had reduced the staff by 20 percent, saving $4 million a year. He added that SDA chief executive officer Marc Larkins, his appointee, is “examining further ways to reduce the size and scope of the organization.”

Perusing the Payroll

An examination of the SDA's payroll points to what he’s talking about. At the request of NJ Spotlight, the SDA released its latest employee rolls this week. They showed an agency of 274 people, 40 of them making $100,000 or more.

That’s down from the 47 making that much in November, when all projects had been halted at the authority. Larkins is the top paid at $195,000.

But legislators from both parties said it still appeared to be a pretty robust agency with only 10 projects back under way, and only two of them slated to actually resume construction in 2011.

“Before there is even a shovel in the ground, there is still $100 million in overhead,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee. “That’s more than the cost of one of the projects. To me, that’s the definition of boondoggle.”

Diegnan last week invited Larkins to come before his committee, only to be turned down. He repeated yesterday that he would ask Larkins again.

But it’s not just the Democrats on the committee complaining. State Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean) said Larkins still had much explaining to do about the size and scope of the authority at a time when there are so few projects underway.

“For years, it was loaded with political hacks and people who should have even been indicted,” said Wolfe in an interview. “I realize since the governor was elected, [Larkins] has completely redone everything, but we really need an update. We want to know what’s going on, what changes are being made.”

Larkins and the SDA’s new chairman, Ed Walsh, were both unavailable for comment yesterday, but the SDA released a statement that the changes continue in a reorganization that has been underway for several months.

It said that a quarter of the 64 jobs reduced since Christie was elected were positions paying $100,000 or more, and the SDA has also closed a satellite office and slashed employee perks.

“The Authority is proactively seeking efficiencies and cost savings in every aspect of its operations,” the statement read. “The Authority will continue to be scrutinized for cost savings for New Jersey taxpayers.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the amount of budget savings that Christie said has been realized at the SDA since his election. The governor said the savings were $4 million a year, not $40 million.