All the complaints and court challenges against the Christie administration and its Schools Development Authority went largely unspoken yesterday in Long Branch.
For the first time since he was elected, Gov. Chris Christie stood in an empty lot with a ceremonial shovel and could enjoy an SDA groundbreaking he could call his own.
“Let’s get some shovels in the ground and get this project cooking,” he said.
Of course, it took almost seven years to get the George L. Catrambone Elementary School this far. And it will be at least another two before students will walk through its doors. But in choosing Long Branch, Christie picked one the few success stories of the state’s school construction project — largely because the district got in early and fast.
While projects continue to languish in cities like Newark, Jersey City and Camden, Long Branch is wrapping up its wish list of projects requested more than a decade ago, when the state Supreme Court first ordered the massive construction program for the state’s neediest districts.
It now has a new elementary school to match the high school and middle schools built in the early part of the program.
“If I could only give other people advice,” said Michael Salvatore, the district’s superintendent, when first approached for words of encouragement to others.
“One of the things I learned,” he continued, “don’t fight the small stuff and get the shovels in the ground. If you are fighting about shingles on the roof or the color of the school, first get those shovels in the ground and then you deal with that.”
It’s a message that others brought up as well, particularly in places where the SDA hasn’t been a curse word over the past few years. Nearby in Neptune, there have been 11 SDA projects in all in eight school buildings, two of them new construction, the rest major renovations.
Again, all the work was done in the early stages of the program, long before the Corzine administration slowed the projects and then Christie virtually stopped them altogether to make what he claimed were needed organizational changes to an agency accused of widespread waste and mismanagement.
“A district really needs to commit and prove that commitment,” said David Mooij, the Neptune superintendent who was among those at the groundbreaking yesterday. “We were always ready to go.”
When asked what it was like yesterday: “We get to sit back and enjoy.”
That’s not to say other districts aren’t equally committed, he and others said, and even the path to Long Branch’s new elementary school has had its share of frustrating turns, both before and during the Christie administration.
The former Elberon Elementary School was first approved for replacement in 2005, but not demolished until 2009, at one point sitting empty a year and a half, while brand new school buildings were overcrowded from the moment they opened.
It took another two years for the Christie administration, by then in the reorganization of the SDA, to clear the project for construction in 2011 and actually start the work this year. Ironically, it is not one of the projects using standardized design and construction plans, something that the SDA is now pushing for new projects.
Marc Larkins, the SDA’s chief executive, yesterday said Long Branch’s progress spoke to the different levels of readiness in districts, including in their leadership.
“That was the key to districts like Neptune, Long Branch, and other districts is they were ready,” he said. “They had leaders who were committed, had a lot of legwork done on their own, and they weren’t fighting us at the table.”
“I think the lessons learned is not all SDA districts are on par, and there are real differences among the districts,” he said.
The SDA has now cleared 30 capital projects, out of a total list of 300 requested by the districts. Catrambone is the first of them to actually see bulldozers at work, as they were at the groundbreaking.
The SDA’s recent gains have hardly slowed the challenges it faces. Lawyers were in state appellate court last week presenting oral arguments in a suit against the state for the slow pace of its emergency repair work.
But Larkins yesterday pledged that a change is coming, even laying out the start of a timeline.
“You will see the pace is going to quicken, but being done in an efficient way,” Larkins said. “We are going to announce or advertise new projects every month for the rest of this year, and roll it into the first couple of months into next year, too.”
“When people talk about the pace of our program, it will be light speed compared to what it was,” he said.
As for Salvatore, the Long Branch superintendent, all he could say is that he felt “very fortunate.” He applauded the work of the Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy organization that has fought the SDA for theplast three years. And he credited something else.
“I think luck has something to do with it too,” he said. “You have 300 projects waiting to be released, and you’re one of the first 10, that’s pretty good.”