Schools Development Authority: Shovels in the Ground — Almost

John Mooney | December 6, 2011 | Education
For the first time in the Christie era, the SDA has put out a project to bid, with another promised for year's end

For the first time since Gov. Chris Christie revamped its management, the Schools Development Authority yesterday put out to bid a new construction project for one of the state’s neediest districts.

The proposal is for the first phase of the Academic High School in Elizabeth, among the 31 districts targeted for the court-ordered construction program. A second project for a new Long Branch elementary school remains under final review, but continues to be promised for the end of the year.

“That’s still the target,” said Kristen MacLean, the SDA’s communication director.

The deliberate restart of SDA’s work has been eagerly awaited and long criticized by Democratic and even some Republican legislators. Christie put a pause on new work while his administration revamped the beleaguered agency, but even after naming a dozen projects last spring that would proceed, none had yet to be put to bid, let alone broken ground.

In addition to the new projects close to launch in Elizabeth and Long Branch, there also appears to be progress on some high-profile projects in Newark, led by the repair of a century-old school closed last fall due to extensive water damage.

The district announced that students will return to Wilson Avenue School in January, after a half-million dollars in district repairs stemming from excessive water damage and mold in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. The students have been attending two nearby schools since the start of the year. The SDA has also agreed to longer-term repairs to the school next summer, including roof work and replacement of close to 100 windows, officials said.

In addition, the district is waiting to hear more from a pledge from acting state education commissioner Chris Cerf in October that two of its new construction projects will start in 2012, the Oliver Street School and the Elliott Street School.

In mid-October, Cerf wrote state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex) that he had been assured by the SDA that both projects would be ready for design early in the year and the start of construction in the fall.

Lawyers with the Education Law Center (ELC), the advocacy group that led the Abbott v. Burke litigation that ordered the construction program, have pressed the SDA for more details about the new work, one a project that hadn’t even been on the SDA’s short list for the most immediate start.

MacLean of the SDA wasn’t commenting yesterday on Cerf’s promise, only to say a number of projects are in the pipeline and an announcement of 2012 plans was coming soon.

Newark officials have only been told they will be eligible in these new projects for the SDA’s new plans for standardizing school designs, a so-call “kit of parts” system that will have different set designs and materials for classrooms, offices, and the like.

“We are anxiously waiting what that will look like,” said Steve Morlino, Newark’s facilities director.

“If we can get them under construction, that would be great,” Morlino said yesterday of the new work. “We’re still talking about emergent projects, which remain under review. There still seems to be a lot of reviewing going on.”