Ever in the spotlight, often under fire, the state agency in charge of building and repairing New Jersey’s public schools is about to get a new boss.
Gov. Chris Christie yesterday announced that Marc Larkins, the current chief of the Schools Development Authority (SDA), will move into the state comptroller's slot.
Charles McKenna, currently Christie's top counsel, is headed for the SDA.
The move comes as the SDA remains under constant criticism, if not legal challenge, for the slow progress of repairs and construction -- especially in the state’s neediest districts.
In making the announcement, Christie yesterday praised Larkins for his leadership of the beleaguered agency over the past four years, even in the face of criticism that too little work has been completed.
And he said that incoming SDA executive director McKenna, would be the right fit for continuing the mission.
State legislators were caught by surprise by the move. Several Democrats said they hoped for a fresh start under McKenna, while others worried that the change will only slow work now under way.
Larkins’ appointment as comptroller, effectively the state government’s independent watchdog, was hardly a foregone conclusion, given the slow progress at the SDA, said some Democratic leaders.
“Past performance is always an area we can question you about,” said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), chairman of the judiciary committee that will need to confirm Larkins’ appointment.
When asked specifically about Larkins’ performance at the SDA, Scutari said it would be examined. “We’ll take a look at it now. I will look at his performance in that position, based on the new position he is getting.”
“There has not been a lot of movement,” Scutari said, responding to the criticisim that Larkins has moved too slowly on projects, especially in some of the neediest districts, like Trenton and Camden.
“I understand we wanted to take some time to be sure it is moving appropriately, but eventually, we want to do something there ," Scutari continued.
The governor praised Larkins, a former assistant federal prosecutor who had worked under Christie, saying he made the needed reforms at the SDA. The authority had been widely criticized during previous administrations -- including Democratic ones -- for waste and mismanagement.
McKenna said he would be building on Larkins’ progress.
“I believe that the SDA is an agency that is poised to move forward and improve the educational infrastructure,” McKenna said in an email.
“Marc Larkins has put a structure in place that should soon begin to move ahead to create new environments where children can learn,” he said. “I look forward to the challenges ahead and will work as hard as I can to see that schools are built and repaired as quickly as possible.”
Larkins has faced intense criticism in his tenure, including in his share of legislative hearings, for the snail’s pace of progress in moving projects ahead.
In the face of dozens, if not hundreds of projects slated by the court-ordered program for completion, the SDA now has six school projects actually in the ground and none yet completed under Christie.
Larkins himself would not comment yesterday on his tenure, but his critics said they hoped for some progress under the new leadership.
“Hope springs eternal,” said state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), whose district includes Trenton Central High School, a deteriorating building that has become a focal point of the criticism.
“I am hoping that [McKenna] will be a lot more aggressive, a lot more concerned about Trenton Central than was Marc Larkins,” she said.
Others said that McKenna has a good reputation and clearly has the governor’s ear, leading to optimism that he would start moving projects that have been stalled.
“I have a good relationship with Mr. McKenna, and as are many in the state, we are anxious about the pace of work,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate education committee. “We haven’t moved quickly enough.”