Newark School Renovation Project Greeted With Kudos and Criticisms

John Mooney | August 30, 2012 | Education
Schools Development Authority puts up its scaffolding to a familiar refrain: what's taking so long?

Wilson School
A year ago, the Wilson Avenue School in Newark was the poster child for many of New Jersey’s city schools — after it was socked by the winds and rains of Hurricane Irene and forced to close for four months before students could return.

Yesterday, the Christie administration and local officials returned to the school on a crystal clear day to announce further repairs to the century-old building, as well as work ongoing in the rest of the district, including the construction of three new buildings.

In a public event held in the school parking lot, Newark school superintendent Cami Anderson said the work was a partnership of not just state and local officials but also community members and parents.

“Today is a true definition of teamwork,” she said.

But school construction is a sore subject in New Jersey, and any time the spotlight is trained on projects that are underway, questions inevitably arise as to what is taking so long.

The pace of work of the state’s Schools Development Authority under Gov. Chris Christie has long been a bone of contention — as well as the subject of lawsuits. And even as it starts to pick up, critics ask why not faster.

For instance, the $1.9 million project announced yesterday includes masonry work and the replacement of more than 130 windows on the Wilson Avenue building, some of them the original wood framing that now is visibly rotted.

The SDA project started with scaffolding being erected around the building yesterday, while officials announced it from the parking lot. But immediately, questions came up as to why the SDA waited until the week before school opens across the city, forcing work into the evening around school hours and within a tight window before winter comes.

Marc Larkins, the chief executive of the SDA, said any project takes considerable time and called the Wilson Avenue work “lightning fast” in comparison with most other projects. He described months of design and procurement steps and even the air testing required.

“It’s all about timing,” he said, indicating that there are close to 40 projects underway throughout the city. “What people may not understand is there are a lot of steps that have to happen.”

“People think they can tell us about a problem in September, we’ll have it teed up by May,” Larkins said. “But that is not typical.”

Still, even local officials and residents said this project appeared to move in fits and starts since the school closed last year and then reopened in January.

Newark’s facilities director, Steven Morlino, said if the SDA is going to be deliberate in building new schools, it is critical that it maintain existing ones, even those slated to be replaced.

“We are now planning [for three new schools], which is great,” he said. “But with all the other buildings that have not come to fruition, how do we address the infrastructure problems going forward until those building are replaced?

“You have to infuse some money into these buildings, even though we realize at some point they are going to come down,” he said. “We have so much deferred maintenance, and it’s not just New Jersey, it’s across the country.”

Parents and community members, more than a dozen of whom attended yesterday’s announcement and took a tour of the school, voiced considerable frustration at the pace of work, although they welcomed that it was finally underway.

“It’s not for the efforts of politicians that this is getting done but despite the lack of effort by the politicians,” said Luis Correia, who has four relatives at the school.

One exception, he and others said, is state Assemblyman Albert Coutinho Jr. (D-Essex), one of the first to press for the repairs last year. He spoke out yesterday, saying that the Wilson Avenue School is just one of the projects required in the Ironbound section of the city, where schools are old and mostly overcrowded.

Coutinho yesterday said he is trying to bring together a partnership to build and run a new elementary school under the state’s fledgling Urban Hope Act.

The law enacted this winter permits up to four publicly funded schools to be built and operated by outside organizations in the cities of Newark, Trenton, and Camden. The idea has caught on in Camden, where there have been multiple proposals, but this would the first out of either Trenton or Newark.

Coutinho said he was only starting to assemble interested parties and investors, but he commented that something must be done if the state isn’t going to act faster.

“Back when this started, we were supposed to get six new schools in the Ironbound, and so far we have zero,” he said. “I realize we may be closing down schools in other parts of the city, but where we have needs is right here.”