Schools Development Authority Looking to ‘Do More With Less’ After Cutting Staff, Payroll

Critics still point to just one project started in three years but agency cites 12 more in the pipeline

Three years after all but halting its construction work, the Schools Development Authority is touting its leaner payroll and streamlined management structure as it finally moves forward with a dozen projects in the next year.

At the request of NJ Spotlight, the SDA this week released its latest payroll and organization chart for the agency’s 240 employees, down nearly 100 people from its peak right after Gov. Chris Christie took office.

The request was made after critics again raised questions about the authority’s administrative expenses as it has started just one construction project in the state’s neediest districts in the last three years.

The Education Law Center, the advocacy group leading the Abbott v. Burke school equity litigation that created the SDA, conducted an analysis of SDA spending since 2010. The ELC said this week that it found the agency has been spending exorbitantly on administration and overhead costs, while failing to complete its work as ordered by the state Supreme Court.

The ELC’s study found $114 million had been spent on administration and other management expenses since 2010, amounting to nearly 20 percent of total spending.

The latest payroll connected some names and positions to those expenses, with salaries alone amounting to $17.8 million annually. The total budget last year was $151 million, the vast majority of it grants to districts not covered by the court ruling.

The salary total is $5 million less than in late 2010, which was when NJ Spotlight last requested the payroll information and amid the authority’s reduction of 100 jobs through attrition and layoffs.

About 15 percent of the staff, or 35 employees, make $100,000 or more and half earn above $75,000 – proportions largely unchanged since 2010. The average pay now is $74,500, also unchanged since 2010.

The 10 top-paid executives have barely changed as well, led by chief executive officer Marc Larkins at $195,000 and followed by three vice presidents at roughly $160,000. They are Jane Kelly (governance), Andrew Yosha (program operations), and Donald Guariello (finance). None have seen raises in the last three years, officials said.

“We really are doing more with less,” said Kristen MacLean, the SDA’s communications director. “We have restructured the authority to be more effective, and most employees are in fact taking on additional responsibilities.”

MacLean said criticism of the authority’s spending was unfair. While few projects have broken ground as yet, she said 12 projects are slated to be under way this year, each requiring architectural and other work.

“They are not capturing what we do,” she said of the criticism. “By the end of the year, we will have 12 projects (under construction), and you don’t get there by doing nothing.”

Nevertheless, the ELC’s director said the payroll figures only strengthened his claims that the SDA is a wayward bureaucracy that has failed to fulfill its charge of building needed schools.

“The large staff, many paid well over $100,000, is completely out of whack with how little work the SDA has actually done,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the ELC.

“This is an out-of-control agency, with no accountability to the taxpayers and, more importantly, to the children forced to attend school in unsafe and deplorable buildings everyday.”