Newark School Closure Sparks Statewide Debate

John Mooney | September 9, 2011 | Education
Critics claim that building troubles – mushrooms and all – are yet another example of School Development Authority's inefficiencies

The school in Newark’s Ironbound section stood silent yesterday, a brick edifice built more than a century ago, its gate chained and locked, its 800 students dispersed to other schools because of deteriorating conditions.

But for all its quiet, Wilson Avenue School has spurred a chorus of debate. Hundreds of parents and others turned out for a meeting Tuesday to protest the district’s decision to shutter the school just three days before classes were slated to start, due to severe mold and water damage exacerbated by Hurricane Irene.

And showing how seriously the Christie administration is taking the situation, on hand were acting education commissioner Chris Cerf and Schools Development Authority (SDA) chief executive Marc Larkins.

Their presence appeared to do little to appease critics, who claim Wilson Avenue is the latest evidence of the SDA’s inability to get court-ordered projects up and running, not just in Newark but across the state. Much of the attention lately has been focused on the Christie administration’s slowdown in construction, allegedly to clean up past inefficiencies.

But Wilson Avenue has brought attention to the SDA’s secondary role of providing funding for badly needed repairs, too, something even Larkins admitted there may not be enough money for.

“The SDA’s stall on not just new construction, but the repairs as well is growing to epidemic levels,” said state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), the Ironbound representative who has led the criticism. “Wilson Avenue is just the latest example of that.”

“We need to make sure there are not other Wilson Avenues on the horizon,” Coutinho added.

Strong Rebuttal

The jabs have hardly left SDA officials remorseful. Larkins responded that some of the criticism needs to be aimed at the district itself for failing to maintain the building.

Larkins said the necessary repairs in masonry and the roof were not on the SDA’s list of projects, counter to what district officials have said. But even so, he said the severity of the need in the face of a hurricane like last week’s could not have been predicted.

“We surely could not have done anything about that,” Larkins said yesterday.

And Larkins said it’s not just a Newark issue, claiming that the SDA has only so much money allotted to the repair projects — 300 of them listed so far. The districts also need to accept some responsibility.

“Part of what has to happen is districts maintain these building,” he said. “We can’t replace them all, and districts will need to do a better job.”

Larkins said the claim that repairs statewide have stalled is misleading, since projects proceeded through last year. But he conceded that some critical time was lost this summer, as the SDA requested districts to submit their latest lists of needed projects. Those lists are now under review, he said, with state teams visiting districts this month and next.

But even if the program suddenly accelerated, Larkins said the allotted $100 million for repairs could not complete all the work. “The problem is the issues out there exceed the funding available,” he said.

Mushrooming Problems

The back and forth did little to appease Steve Morlino, director of facilities for the Newark school district. He conceded that the hurricane brought problems that never could have been foreseen. One sighting of mushrooms growing in a gym light-well was a first in his three decades of facilities management.

But he said the masonry repairs have been requested for four years, only to be postponed. Scaffolding was put up at one point to protect students from falling bricks.

“The state is doing some work in the district, I can’t claim they are not, but we have projects in since 2007 and still waiting,” he said. “And each month, as the buildings get older, we need to put in more.”

The latest came yesterday, when Morlino was called to Malcolm X Shabazz High School, where flooding from the recent rains seeped into offices. It’s not in classrooms yet, but he didn’t rule it out soon. And he said he was told to add longer-term drainage repairs to the list for state funding.

“Their answer was to put it down as another emergent need,” Morlino said. “But we can’t just put it on the list and start the wait again.”