Schools Development Agency’s Chief Cites Gains, Acknowledges Challenges

John Mooney | December 18, 2014 | Education
While a number of projects are in the works, funding for Abbott districts is running low – and is virtually depleted for non-Abbott school projects

Credit: Amanda Brown
Charles McKenna, head of the Schools Development Authority
While the Schools Development Authority, under new leadership, continues to make strides in winning support and getting school projects off the ground, it now faces a bigger challenge: the school construction agency is running low on money.

SDA representatives came before the Legislature’s Joint Committee for the Public Schools yesterday – and they managed, by and large, to quiet what has been a drumbeat of criticism of the agency ever since Gov. Chris Christie all but halted its work for two years.

Charles McKenna — Christie’s former chief counsel, who took over the SDA a year ago — listed the number of projects the agency has started, as well those in the pipeline for the state’s poorest districts, as ordered under the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke rulings.

And McKenna even won support from some of the agency’s harshest critics, who said there has been a big shift in responsiveness and transparency under his leadership.

“There has been a sea-change,” said Deborah Cornavaca, a member of the Healthy Schools Now, an advocacy group. “We have had fruitful, sometimes contentious, but always productive meetings, and they have always been responsive to our suggestions.”

But the good will didn’t do much to solve a more persistent problem now facing the agency that threatens school construction, not just for the Abbott districts, but statewide.

McKenna said that SDA it has only about $400 million left from $2.9 billion in funds for new projects in the Abbott districts, mostly emergent ones, and virtually no funds left for projects in non-Abbott districts.

He said the ongoing work in the Abbott districts will keep the SDA busy for five to seven years, but it is unlikely that many new major projects will start up without additional money authorized by the Legislature — and probably not before the agency develops a plan for prioritizing the most critical projects.

“It is not imperative we go back today (to the Legislature),” McKenna said in an interview after his testimony. “And before we do, I want to put together a plan for what we need.”

“I don’t need the money now, I don’t need it next year, but probably two, three years from now, we will need it to start more projects,” McKenna added.

Others saw a more urgent need, saying that the Legislature must start discussing school-construction funding now to have plan of its own in place sooner than later.

“In the coming months, the SDA will find itself without the resources to meet district needs, whether those come in the form of emergent projects or the renovation or construction of outdated, over-crowded and/or dilapidated school facilities,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which has led the Abbott litigation and pressed hardest for the state to meet its obligations.

State Assemblyman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), co-chair of the joint committee, said she had yet seen any movement in the Legislature to initiate new funding authorization.

“It comes down to money,” she said. “The projects in the pipeline are moving forward, and that’s a good thing, but we need to take some time right now and prioritize and know where everybody is right now. The urgency is we need to start planning now.”

The situation is more pressing for non-Abbott districts that have seen their $1 billion in school-construction aid dry up completely. While projects already approved will get their funding, there is no money available for future construction.

The SDA does not manage those projects the way it does the Abbott ones, but it pays up to 40 percent of overall costs.

This year alone saw local voters in 44 school districts approve more than $700 million in construction projects, the highest dollar total since 2005.

The committee heard testimony from officials in one district that was not so fortunate — Freehold Borough. The small K-8 school district has twice failed to win voter approval to build new classroom space, forcing it to consider moving to staggered schedules or half-day kindergarten to accommodate rising enrollment.

Calling such moves “educational suicide” for a district like his, Superintendent Rocco Tomazic implored the committee to look at ways to help lower-income districts that are not Abbott districts but are also not wealthy enough to win support for needed projects.

‘We’re at a perfect storm,” he said, describing rising enrollments and limited aid from the state or local taxpayers. “We’re at a point where something needs to be done.”