Christie Clears New School Projects, Some Sooner Than Others

John Mooney | February 16, 2012 | Education
Governor touts changes at troubled SDA but not everyone is certain plans will lead to more work

Jesus West New York
The headlines will read that Gov. Chris Christie yesterday cleared the way for another 20 school construction projects in the state’s poorest cities. On the surface, that would jump-start building after two years of virtually no new projects and the slow start for 10 announced last year.

But a closer look at the list and the administration’s plans show a more complicated picture of where the controversial Schools Development Authority (SDA) is headed with these projects, some possibly years away while others long-delayed are suddenly getting the fast track.

In some cases there are really not specific projects at all as yet, with officials acknowledging the SDA is only beginning to meet with some districts about rethinking their plans.

Still, it was a celebratory mood yesterday as Christie traveled to West New York to announce that his two-year campaign to clean up the beleaguered SDA was mission accomplished and he was hopeful this was just the start of more work.

“Under this administration, we would not repeat the SDA’s sorry history,” Christie said in a press conference held at Memorial High School. “Change would finally come to the SDA.”

He spoke of 10 percent smaller payroll, down to just over 250 employees, and savings in internal controls and standardization of design and construction.

And then he read the list of 20 new projects, starting with eight that he said would be put out to bid by the end of this year. They will total $675 million in new construction, he said.

They include several that have been among the longest running on districts’ wish list, including Phillipsburg High School, where 31 classroom trailers now must absorb the school’s notorious overcrowding. The district sued the state in November after the project failed to make it on the last list.

Two elementary schools in Newark were also cleared to advance, officials said, including one that closed down after a devastating fire five years ago. A middle school in Gloucester City also finally won approval, years after more than 70 properties were purchased to clear for its construction.

Another was the school where they were standing in West New York. Skipped over by the SDA last year, Memorial High School will now see an expansion to alleviate its overcrowding. But it won’t be as expected, instead seeing the expansion through the SDA’s purchase of the former St. Joseph’s High School next door.

Christie cited the decision to save money with an existing building as the main reason for choosing West New York for the announcement. He said the new project would be well less than the $60 million proposed for a new school.

“This is the kind of alternative delivery we want to put the spotlight on,” he said. “It shows how the SDA is changing as an organization.”

The remaining projects, however, are a bit less certain. The next big bulk of projects were five that will be major renovations of schools but not the new construction many had envisioned, and in some cases had been previously approved.

Trenton Central High School and Camden City High School will be on that list, but SDA officials were hesitant to put any timeframe or price tag on them.

When asked when they could see even construction bids within two years, SDA chief executive Marc Larkins said afterward that they should be able to start by then, but could take longer to complete.

“Those we may need to phase in, because they are different types of projects and you may have work around kids in the schools,” he said.

The others in this new class of “capital improvement projects” are two in Orange, including one in a building that is a century old, and a Hoboken elementary school.

And the third category is the least certain of all, seven districts that have shown a high educational need for the additional schools but where now there will be “further discussions” on how to address those needs, said the state’s announcement.

They include Elizabeth, where six elementary schools had been proposed but now other alternatives are being considered that may achieve the same ends, officials said. Same with Harrison, Millville, Garfield, Paterson, Perth Amboy and Union City.

“That could take time, we know that,” said Kristen MacLean, the SDA’s communications director afterward. “But we’re not looking to delay this, we understand something needs to be done.”

Still, the uncertainty left many questions among advocates and school officials. The harshest critics decried the lack of a clear construction schedule, even for the finalized projects.

“That’s their job and they continue not to do it,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, whose Abbott v. Burke school equity challenge led to the court-ordered program.

“We really have to start upping the pressure on the administration,” he said. “If that means more litigation, then that’s what has to happen.”

Back in West New York, the district’s superintendent said he was pleased to see Memorial High School get off the drawing table, even if not exactly as he planned. “I can’t complain about what’s happened,” said Superintendent John Fauta.

A few of the students on hand said the addition of more space, even if across the street, will ease the crowds in the hallways. More space for biology labs and other elective classes will also only add to the offerings, they said.

“In between classes, it can get insane,” said Roy Bautista, a 17-year-old senior. “With the new building, it will help ease the flow and there will be less drama.”