Even as some projects overseen by the state’s Schools Development Authority get up and running, the debate over the pace of repairs to New Jersey’s neediest schools isn’t ebbing at all.
A coalition of nearly four dozen groups stepped up the pressure in the last week, claiming the Christie administration continues to move too slowly on the court-ordered school projects. And even the state’s own education commissioner recently ruled that certain deadlines had not been met.
Meanwhile, the SDA yesterday issued an updated list and status report on 76 approved projects ranging from boiler replacements to repairs of facades and roofs.
Asked yesterday if there was a backlog of projects at this point, SDA Director Marc Larkins said: ‘’Not that we are aware of. There are more requests still coming in, of course, and some of those will be rejected, but there are none just sitting somewhere waiting for action.”
Others would surely disagree, as much of the debate centers on what it means to describe a project as being under way.
The coalition of 43 groups wrote an open letter to Gov. Chris Christie and the SDA, delivered at its board meeting yesterday, complaining that a number of projects may have seen pre-construction work but few have been completed.
In addition, there another 600 requested projects that have not been cleared by the SDA at all. The 76 projects listed yesterday were approved by the SDA in early 2012.
“Now, over a year later, the SDA has completed only a few of these projects and has not committed to complete the remaining projects by the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year,” read the letter signed by an assortment of unions, advocacy groups and even the state PTA.
“This is unacceptable,” the letter continued. “Allowing repairs to wait for over two years unnecessarily exposes students and staff to unsafe and unhealthy conditions.”
State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf ruled last month on a legal challenge filed this winter and agreed that his department had not met certain statutory deadlines for reviewing approved projects, preventing at least some of the work from proceeding.
In what was an unusual case of the commissioner ruling against his own agency, Cerf nonetheless said the reviews of 70 projects would be completed by Aug. 30 of this year.
How much this will affect specific projects remains uncertain. Larkins called the department’s work at this point more a matter of paperwork and procedure.
“That was more a legal issuance in terms of records, but it had no impact on the actual timeline on the advancement of the work,” he said yesterday. “Whether or not we receive the paperwork, that was more a formality. We were already moving the projects downstream.”
With the SDA paying the cost, half of the projects have been delegated to the school districts to complete. Larkins suggested that those school districts now share at least some responsibility for completing the work.
He cited Newark as a successful partnership, saying the district has proceeded on several projects this year and worked closely with the SDA on major repairs to a school damaged and closed by Hurricane Sandy.
But among the most contested projects to this point has been work slated at Trenton Central High School, where politicians and community activists have continually decried the condition of the building and put the blame for delays on the SDA.
Yesterday, criticism came from a student and teacher who testified before the SDA board that the condition of walls and ceilings, not to mention the building’s outside façade and roof, is simply demoralizing.
Christian Malave, a graduating senior this year, said walls are literally crumbling in the school library.
“There is a huge chunk in the corner where all the plaster is falling off, and it continues to fall off,” he said. “It’s not getting any better, and seems to be ignored.”
Asked about the impact on students, he replied: “It makes the students feel that nobody cares about them. They feel the government, the state, even the teachers, nobody cares.”
Separate from the so-called emergent work, the SDA has started a major capital project at the school to repair its many deficiencies, including replacement of a section of the roof that was damaged during Hurricane Sandy.
Still, the project still awaits completion of design work and hiring of a general contractor, steps that will require at least another four to six months, Larkins said. In the meantime, he said yesterday, responsibility for some of the interior work does rest with the Trenton district.
“We don’t do a lot of the interiors,” he said of the SDA. “Our projects are constrained by the law, either capital project or emergent, and short of those two things, we can’t spend the money.”
“The district needs to do a part, and we have to do our part,” he continued. “Our part is the funding and support on the major work, but you hear some people talk about the state of the bathrooms. That’s not our job, that’s not our part.”
But he said that the working relationship with Trenton has improved, and said that comments from students like Malave are heeded.
“There are things we can do together to make it a better place,” he concluded.