Hearing Sheds Little Light on How Schools Get on the SDA Short List

Two projects -- one approved, one not -- provide some clues as to what counts

The Assembly’s education committee yesterday held a hearing to try to clarify how the Christie administration chose the school construction projects it will advance in the next year.

It’s been a testy process, to say the least, with Gov. Chris Christie first halting the massive construction initiative ordered by the state’s Supreme Court for New Jersey’s neediest districts, and then restarting it last month under what he said was a more-efficient and streamlined process.

Ten projects, out of more than 100 that even the administration acknowledged are needed, were given a tentative green light to proceed, from a new high school in Elizabeth to an elementary school in Bridgeton.

But yesterday’s hearing did little to ease the tensions, with Marc Larkins, the chief executive of the Schools Development Authority (SDA), fielding countless questions but doing little to assuage legislators as to why some projects were chosen and others will have to wait.

The acting chairwoman of the committee, state Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), was most critical and issued a press release afterward that called Larkins’ testimony “very disappointing.”

Nevertheless, a closer look at the scorecards used by the SDA and the state’s education department, as well as testimony and interviews with officials, reveal some of the thinking behind the decisions.

A scorecard played a part, but so did other factors such as the project’s costs, designs and timetables. Here’s two examples, one project chosen to proceed, a second not.

Catrambone Elementary School (Long Branch, Monmouth)

Description: A new pre-K-5th grade school, for 817 students. It replaces the Elberson School that has since been demolished. The project was chosen as one of the 10 projects to proceed.

Cost: $46,573,785, of which $3,217,511 has been spent.

Scores: 19.5 out of a maximum of 28 on the combined rating of the SDA and the state’s education department, in the top dozen scores of all 110 projects rated. With the demolition of the Elberson School, overcrowding in the district has only worsened, giving the project especially high ratings.

Other factors: Catrambone is one of nine elementary schools chosen in the first 10 projects, part of the SDA’s push to standardize design and construction in as many projects as possible. Considered to be an efficient design and layout. Also, the project is well along, with only final approvals pending on its design. It’s lower price also helped, one of six of the 10 chosen projects under $60 million.

Phillipsburg High School (Phillipsburg, Warren County)

Description: It is called the “poster child” of the needs faced by districts under the Abbott v. Burke decision, so badly overcrowded that hundreds of students are taking classes in more than 30 rented trailers. Still, it was not chosen to be the first 10 projects to proceed.

Cost: $123.9 million by the state’s accounting, $88 million by the district’s.

Scores: 22.5 out of a maximum of 28 on the combined rating of the SDA and the state’s education department, the second-highest score of any project on the list. The project won the highest ratings on the needs it faces in overcrowding, the top factor used by the SDA.

Other factors: The reason the project was not ultimately chosen appeared to be a combination of factors, including the high price (officials said it didn’t help that few could agree on the total) and questions as to whether a project of this scale is needed to alleviate overcrowding. One alternative is a smaller project such as an addition or a separate building. Also it did not appear to fit into the SDA’s visions of “standardization,” an issue of increasing importance as the agency seeks to develop standardized school designs that can be easily applied to districts across the state.