An explanation Tuesday by the CEO of the state Schools Development Authority to the Assembly Education Committee on how the agency selected 10 school construction projects out of 100 applications submitted from among New Jersey 31 poorest school districts did not satisfy the panel’s Democratic members.
Marc Larkins, the CEO, told the committee the authority a work group of SDA and state Education Department staffers gave the proposed projects a thorough review and developed the ranking system.
Gov. Chris Christie selected Larkins to remake the authority and after a year in which 52 SDA-funded school construction projects were left in limbo, the governor announced last month that $584 million in state support had been awarded to the 10 projects. The governor said the authority, which had been plagued by waste and mismanagement, would slowly begin to help finance projects.
Larkins said Tuesday that the criteria developed for ranking school construction or renovation projects included whether they are construction-ready, the number of students that would benefit, how much the project would cost and whether the design could be standardized. The CEO also said the authority previously awarded a project to each of the 31 districts regardless of need and that 27 projects that had been approved before the governor shut them down had not been ranked or prioritized.
"It was difficult to develop an objective system to take in to account some of the individual factors related to each project," Larkins said. "There is no road map. It's a work in progress."
The projects that gained approval include elementary schools in two in Jersey City, two in Paterson, one each in Bridgeton, New Brunswick, Newark, West New York and Long Branch and a magnet high school in Elizabeth.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer) was not happy with Larkins’ explanation.
“The lack of clear answers on school construction today was an embarrassment to the administration and an insult to the children, parents and taxpayers of this state,” Watson Coleman said following the hearing. “We still have no clear explanation as to how the administration chose which school construction projects to support. We probably have more questions now than they did before the hearing.
“The Christie administration has created a convoluted bureaucracy that cannot explain its own decisions,” the Assemblywoman said. “It’s very disappointing. Very disappointing. And the children trying to learn in substandard school facilities are suffering because of it.”
Assemblyman Joe Malone (R-Burlington) defended Larkins’ explanation and charged that Democrats are trying to obtain money for their districts as the November legislative election looms.
"SDA is no longer a political piggybank for people to smash every time they need money," Malone said. "I think it's excellent the way they're proceeding with this."
“Make no mistake about it, the state of a student’s learning environment can affect their performance, morale, and above all their safety,” Watson Coleman said. “Trenton Central High School has been slated for funding since 2004. This project has been put off for far too long and deserves to be made an emergent priority by the SDA. At the very least, we deserve an explanation as to why it was not included on this year’s list.”
“It would seem that there were many high priority projects left off this list,” Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) said. “Take the 100-year-old Cleveland Street School in Orange, for example. Many of the school’s classrooms do not get warm until the afternoon because the boiler is old. Meanwhile, the basement houses the cafeteria as well as the only set of bathrooms for hundreds of students spread out over three floors.”
“Taxpayers and our children deserve full transparency when it comes to this funding process. To date, many questions remain,” said Assemblywoman Nellie Pou (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Hopefully this hearing will offer some clarification on this critical process.”
“We understand that funding is tight and not every project will move forward as quickly as everyone would hope,” Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester) said. “However, there are many examples of critical, shovel-ready projects that have been inexplicably overlooked. In Gloucester City, they have spent $13 million to buy and tear down 70 properties for the Mary Alice Costello School. In Camden City, work on the Lanning Square School was already underway and halted, leaving the project shovel-ready and without funding.”
“It’s clear that further reforms are needed. One can only wonder what selection process was used to determine eligibility,” Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer) said. “Considering the lengthy delays in getting projects funded, and our limited tax dollars, it’s my sincere hope that politics and parochialism did not play a factor.”