When the Schools Development Authority’s governing board meets this morning, its members are expected clear the way for the long-awaited restart of the state’s massive school construction program.
The plan before the board, announced by Gov. Chris Christie last month, will be to begin with 10 chosen projects -- from West New York to Bridgeton -- amounting to close to $600 million in new and renovated schools.
But since Christie’s announcement, much of the debate has been about what will not be on the table, a longer list of 42 projects that were slated for completion in 2008 and now on hold, if happening at all.
And new data provided yesterday shows the passed-over projects not only dwarf those approved, but have themselves consumed more than $200 million in construction, design and other pre-development costs that may or may not be wholly recouped.
These projects include:
A new middle school in Passaic City, estimated to cost $135 million, with $40 million of that already spent.
A new middle school in Gloucester City costing $66 million, with at least $13 million spent.
The new Roebling School in Trenton, a $118 million facility of which $16 million is spent.
The expended funds were just one of several topics raised as Schools Development Authority (SDA) officials testified before the legislature’s Joint Committee for the Public Schools, with lawmakers grilling chief executive Marc Larkins why certain projects passed muster and others didn’t.
He didn’t provide many answers, saying he wanted to lay out the criteria to his own board first. That did not go over well with some of the legislators, especially those who saw their projects left off the list.
"So that means any input we have after that will be too late," said Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), who openly complained that just one of the 10 selected projects is from south of Trenton.
"We are no better today, than we were 15 months ago," he said.
Larkins stressed that there was a full process that weighed a number of factors from cost to need to viability. And he stressed than none of the projects passed over were now dead, only that they could be re-evaluated and potentially redesigned.
“Nothing is shelved,” Larkins said. “Just because they were not announced, it doesn’t mean that we’re not working on them.”
He also acknowledged that there remained $3 billion in bonding authorization and no indication that money would not be spent. "I’m obviously not speaking for the governor or the treasurer, but as I sit here, I have no indication that funding will be an issue," he said.
Still, Larkins said he understood the anger as a native of Irvington in Essex County, where one of its promised projects was also put on hold. "I understand the frustration, I understand what the need is like," he said. "I live in one of these communities, I grew up in one."
That did little to assuage those on the panel, nor those who traveled to testify. Among them was Gloucester City superintendent Paul Spaventa, who put the expended costs of his new middle school at close to $40 million if factoring in the land acquisition of 70 homes and businesses.
"If we’re not approved in the first 10, you’re looking at a minimum of three more years in just the design," he said. "And even if approved then or the year after that, our school is crumbling around our students."