Today, Gov. Chris Christie will be in West New York’s Memorial High School to announce a new class of school construction projects for New Jersey’s neediest districts, according to his office.
Yet the pace of progress on the last class — announced with less fanfare one year ago today — may not exactly bode well for a lot of shovels getting in the ground anytime soon.
Of the 10 projects in places like Jersey City, Newark and Elizabeth that were given the green light by the Schools Development Authority last February, just two have even gone out for bid. Another two projects are slated to go to bid next month, and four more after that. The final plans for the two remaining are still to be developed, officials said.
“How much money have they spent down at the SDA in the meantime?” said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund, whose home district is awaiting the start of two projects on the list.
“If they don’t move soon, we have to figure out a way to go back to court,” she said. “At this point, we’re waiting for something to fall on the kids.”
Such has been a frequent complaint about the SDA since Christie came into office, revamping the long-beleaguered agency and appointing a former federal prosecutor, Marc Larkins, as its new executive director.
After years of criticism for its waste and mismanagement, the agency now boasts stronger internal controls for project costs, stricter criteria for which projects proceed and in what form, and new standardization of construction and design.
But in the meantime, a once-long list of projects cleared under previous administrations under order of the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke rulings have sat idle, even in many cases with designs completed, property in hand, and neighborhoods relocated.
Mark Miller, the superintendent of Phillipsburg schools, is hoping a new high school for his district will be on the list. The state of the current high school has been a poster child for the impact of the SDA’s delays, with now 31 trailers on the site serving as classrooms.
“If we’re on it, I’d be as happy as can be, but I haven’t heard anything,” Miller said last night. “We continue to meet with them, but we haven’t heard anything about a list.”
After what he called months of frustration, Miller was actually upbeat about the recent discussions with SDA staff around the high school project. After a long silence, the two sides have been revising design and other components of the work.
“It’s going very well, surprisingly so,” Miller said. “They had stopped working with us, period, but now it is picked up again.”
How the next projects are chosen is sure to be a point of contention as well, with the process with the last round facing fierce criticism with its formulations that considered a combination of cost, need and efficiency.
Nine of the first 10 projects were elementary schools, which more easily fit into the SDA’s standardization process. But nine of 10 were also in the northern end of the sate, angering South Jersey legislators.
Projects high on previous lists were not chosen, while others leapfrogged over them. One left behind in the last round was a new West New York high school, presumably to be addressed by Christie today in making the announcement at Memorial.
Nevertheless, the SDA has its critics who contend the announcement of the next class will be little more than political hype, given the history of the last class.
“This administration on school construction has been all talk and no action,” said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, which first brought the Abbott v. Burke lawsuit that led to the court-ordered program.
“There has been no shovels in the ground for the last two years, while Gov. Christie has spent $100 million of taxpayers money on salaries and benefits and overhead that has accomplished literally nothing for these districts.”
At the SDA board’s last meeting, the agency put out a new timeline for the existing 10 projects and announced when each would proceed and under which designs: