Newark NJ — September 22, 2010

As Governor Christie’s order to stop school construction reached its 10th month, there is no relief in sight for thousands of public school children trapped in crumbling, outmoded, and overcrowded school buildings in New Jersey’s poorest neighborhoods.

This was the message delivered to legislators by Marc Larkins, CEO of the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA) at a September 21st hearing of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools. The hearing was held at a 100 year-old Gloucester City elementary school that is on the list of 52 school construction projects stopped by the Governor last January, even though the SDA has already spent millions to clear a site to build a new school blocks away.

When pressed by Senator Donald Norcross and lawmakers on the panel, Mr. Larkins offered no timeframe or schedule for restarting work on the stalled projects, and made it clear that the shutdown would continue well into 2011. Mr. Larkins provided only vague details about an “internal review” of the capital plan adopted by the SDA in 2008, which may be forwarded to Governor Christie “in late October.” Mr. Larkins provided no information on when the Governor would finish his review, and offered no assurance the Governor would even support completing the projects.

In a statement to the Joint Committee , ELC Executive Director David Sciarra called the Governor’s construction shutdown “inexcusable” and a shocking waste of public funds. When the Governor issued his “stop work order” in January 2010, the SDA had already spent over $236 million to acquire land and design the 52 new or renovated schools, representing almost 2/3 of all the pre-development costs to prepare the projects for actual construction. The 52 stalled projects are in thirty (30) communities — from Paterson to Camden — and would replace some of the most deplorable, unsafe and outmoded school buildings still in use in New Jersey.

“There is simply no justification to stop ‘shovel ready’ projects, and to put them on indefinite hold,” Mr. Sciarra said. “Even worse, it would be a complete waste of millions in taxpayer dollars to now scrap these projects, given the urgent need and the level of public investment already made to get them ready for construction. And every week of delay just drives-up the construction cost.”

Mr. Sciarra also pointed out that, while the SDA has been sidelined by the Governor from building the 52 schools, the agency continues to maintain a massive 300 plus employee staff, along with extensive office space and administrative overhead. Financial reports show that SDA spent $21 million on employees, and another $5 million in administrative overhead in just the first six months of the current year, even though the agency managed only 7 or 8 projects during that time.

“With all the talk in Trenton of waste and abuse, the SDA continues to spend scarce public funds to support a massive, bloated and expensive bureaucracy. To spend $50 million in one year on staff and administrators while doing almost no work is unconscionable,” Mr. Sciarra added.

Mr. Sciarra also reminded lawmakers that the landmark Abbott v. Burke order requiring the State to renovate and replace crumbling, unsafe buildings so that children are educated in safe, up-to-date and adequate facilities remains in full force and effect.

“The school construction program is not optional,” said Mr. Sciarra. “Aside from the legal obligation, our school children, communities and our economy demand that the Governor quit stalling and get these projects moving — now.”

Related Material:
NJ Spotlight – More on the Joint Committee hearing.
Education Law Center Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Policy & Outreach Coordinator
voice: 973 624-1815 x24
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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240