Politics and Education: Perfect Together

John Mooney | February 8, 2013 | Education
A decade in the making, Union City’s new school gives Christie a chance to celebrate the beleaguered Schools Development Authority

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Union City Mayor Brian Stack (left) and Gov. Chris Christie
The site of the new Colin Powell Elementary School in Union City has seen its share of politics over the years, with the school that once stood here even hosting former President Clinton more than a decade ago.

But yesterday was more like a lesson in the raw political power of education, as Gov. Chris Christie used the opening of the school — which actually took place five months ago — to host a raucous election-year pep rally.

The event was carefully choreographed , from the lengthy welcoming remarks to the singing blue-uniformed schoolchildren. And before 800 people in a standing-room-only gymnasium, Christie and Union City Mayor Brian Stack — a Democrat– trumpeted what they called the progress of school construction in the state.

Christie celebrated the new $46.2 million school as coming in under budget and ahead of schedule, adding that nearly a dozen more projects would start in next year across the state.

Stack, a state Senator who has made a habit of crossing the aisle to praise the Republican governor, was even more overt in his praise.

“Make no mistake about it, without Gov. Christie, this school wouldn’t have been built, I want to make that clear,” said Stack in introducing Christie.

Not all of it was exactly accurate, at least not in the case of this school.

The Colin Powell School was first proposed a decade ago to replace the Christopher Columbus School, a former parochial-turned-public school. It was part of the first wave in the massive court-ordered school construction program under the Abbott v. Burke ruling. Ground was finally broken in 2009 — under former Gov. Jon Corzine.

In fact, Colin Powell is actually one of the last school construction projects to break ground in the state, with Christie all but halting the program for his first two years in office to bring in new leadership and what he called cost-savings and efficiencies to the long-troubled Schools Development Authority.

Construction has started anew, including a groundbreaking in Long Branch last fall, and Christie yesterday signaled that it will be going full force in the coming months — a timely restart of ceremonial groundbreakings and press releases as the governor makes his bid for reelection.

“When I got into office, the SDA was a mess,” Christie said. “I sent [SDA director Marc Larkins] in there to fix it, and now that he has, and we have seen the money can be spent wisely and efficiently, in a way you can be proud of, with results and not just talk.”

According to the SDA, Colin Powell came in more than $10 million below the initial budget of $59 million. And Christie said three new schools would see contracts wrapped up in next month.

“By the end of the year,” Christie said, “we have estimated the SDA will have nearly a dozen school projects in construction across this state for students in need.”

Still, the administration and the SDA have their staunch critics, who were not phased by Christie’s claims, and have continued to fight the administration in court, the latest battle over its failure to address a long list of emergency work.

“The children now attending this school since it opened in last September are extremely fortunate because construction began in 2009 before Gov. Christie’s shutdown of the school construction program in January 2010,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which first brought the Abbott suit.

“Thousands of their peers in tens of projects that have been put on hold are not so lucky,” Sciarra said.

Union City Superintendent Stanley Sanger has been at the district through much of Colin Powell’s start-and-stop history. Yesterday, he was up on the stage alongside Christie and Stack to celebrate his new school.

Afterward, he said the Colin Powell School wasn’t exactly the model he’d like to follow for every new building, given the many years it took to build under four different governors.

And Sanger said he is more than aware of the SDA’s critics, noting he has a few emergency projects waiting for the SDA’s approval as well.

But he also wasn’t about to knock a program that has done pretty well by Union City, with nearly $300 million in four new schools built by the state — including a new high school — and three others built by the district itself.

“I know the criticism, but I can’t really say anything negative,” Sanger said, crediting the cooperation and promotion of local and state officials, led by Stack.

“That whole process and initiative has been good to us. On the ground, I have to say we’ve been blessed.”