State puts the kibosh on Camden school construction

Posted: February 16, 2011

Funding will cease for the year on the construction of a Camden school that was to be part of the city's biggest redevelopment project - and already had led to the state-funded demolition of several occupied properties, the Christie administration announced Tuesday.

Another major project, to modernize Camden High School and preserve its iconic tower for more than $100 million, also has been put on hold, as has a plan to renovate the dilapidated Pyne Point Family Middle School in North Camden for $35 million.

Gloucester City will not get the $53.5 million middle school it has long expected, and the Boudinot Area Early Childhood Center won't be built this year in Burlington City.

These are some of the more than 40 school projects approved in 2008 by Gov. Jon S. Corzine that will have to wait until at least next year, when districts can reapply for money.

Gov. Christie has ended the old system for paying for school construction in financially strapped districts - which he says was wasteful, political and nonsensical - and replaced it with something he called fairer and more efficient.

"The era . . . in which each school district develops their own wish list for what school they want built is ending now," Christie said Tuesday at a news conference.

In announcing his restructuring of the state's long-troubled school construction program, he criticized Corzine for lacking a process and fiscal discipline in planning new schools.

School projects will be prioritized for the first time based on need and cost efficiency - not "political whim," Christie said.

To save an estimated $4 million per project on the architects, engineers and other construction experts who are hired individually by each district, standardized designs, which can be replicated, will be used.

Every year, the state will approve a list of schools for funding. That list could contain just five schools - or dozens. This year, the SDA chose 10 schools from more than 50 Corzine had approved.

"We are going to be committed to doing these things, but we're not going to be wasting money anymore," Christie said. "This is serious taxpayer money that's being utilized here."

At the Lanning Square site, which fills three city blocks next to a downtown area that Camden leaders had hoped would lead the city's resurgence, the district's director of facilities construction said the state had spent about $2 million since building began in 2005.

According to the city's redevelopment plan, 34 occupied and vacant properties, including three houses, were purchased under the threat of eminent domain to make way for the school.

The $42.4 million elementary school was to be part of a redevelopment project centered on a new medical school being built by Cooper University Hospital and Rowan University.

"It was the number-one priority for Camden," said Wendy Kunz, director of facilities construction for the district. "I'm sort of shocked."

Long promised by city and state politicians, the new public school was used as a carrot to entice reluctant residents to support the redevelopment project and the state's use of eminent domain. Students are now split between two decrepit buildings erected more than 100 years ago, including one built in 1878, that will need emergency repairs to continue to operate, Kunz said.

The empty lots act as a staging area for the medical school's construction.

Kunz said Camden High needed immediate renovation to provide a 21st-century education.

"You can do a really good job - in a 1920s educational program," she said.

The state Schools Development Authority would not confirm how much money it had spent on the Camden projects and said reasons for halting the planned school construction would be discussed at an SDA directors meeting March 2.

"I think it's a big embarrassment for SDA and government," Kunz said. "This is really, really disappointing for the district. The kids and community deserve it the most."

As part of Christie's changes, the SDA has reduced it staff almost 20 percent over last year and made other changes to save more than $4 million annually, Christie's office said.

The SDA was created during the Corzine administration to oversee $3.9 billion in spending on new schools and renovations after an initial $8.6 billion program run by the defunct Schools Construction Corp. was bogged down in waste and mismanagement.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com. Read the "Christie Chronicles" blog at www.philly.com/christiechronicles

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