New Jersey school repair projects still lagging

Posted: March 13, 2012

The damaged stone veneer at the entrance of Camden's Lanning Square School at Fetters is enough of a hazard that repairing it is among 76 projects designated a high priority Monday by the state Schools Development Authority.

But the seemingly welcome news was met with anger and suspicion by some city residents and activists, who wondered when Lanning Square children will get the new school they have awaited since 2002.

The old Lanning Square Elementary was demolished in 2005, and its students were divided between Fetters and another century-old school - temporarily, residents were told - while a replacement was to be built.

"They need to let [Fetters] go," said Mongaliso Davis, of the newly formed group Friends of Lanning Square School. "Why are they fixing it up? Is it going to be long-term?"

The planned work at Lanning Square at Fetters was one of 76 "emergent" repair projects in the state's neediest school districts announced by the Christie administration. Of the eight local schools on the list, six are in Camden and one each is in Burlington City and Gloucester City.

In 2008, Gov. Corzine authorized $3.9 billion for 52 school construction projects, including a new $42.4 million Lanning Square school.

About $10 million was spent to demolish the existing school, and homes were taken by eminent domain to make room for the new 33-classroom building.

Fetters and the Broadway School were to be temporary homes for the students and teachers. But years passed, and the grass grew higher where the school was to go.

In 2010, Gov. Christie asked the Schools Development Authority and education department to reassess all planned school building projects, said authority spokeswoman Kristen MacLean.

"Anything that had not gone forward with construction was stopped," she said.

Lanning Square failed to be included on two subsequent lists of the state's top-priority building projects.

"I don't know who told the community they were going to get a new school," Christie said on Monday at a town-hall meeting in Bordentown.

When told it was his predecessor, Christie responded: "They should go to Gov. Corzine then."

In the meantime, the Broadway School was deemed uninhabitable after August's earthquake. Students were sent packing again, this time to the decrepit Parkside School in a drug-trafficking area more than a mile away.

The Lanning Square project shouldn't be called new construction, Camden School Board President Susan Dunbar-Bey said Monday. It is "a replacement school, and it should be replaced," she said.

"We had the colors and the furniture picked out, everything," she noted.

In 2008, the authority's first "emergent project" list cited a different masonry issue at Lanning Square at Fetters.

"It took the [authority] a year and a half to 'study' the problem, and two weeks to do the actual repairs," Wendy S. Kunz, who oversees construction for the district, wrote in an e-mail. The job cost the state $72,000.

"The solution was the same as the district proposed at the time it was discovered," Kunz said.

Also announced Monday were structural repairs to be done at the Bonsall, Cramer, and Pyne Point schools in Camden. Sharp and Yorkship, both in the city, are to have roofing work and get a new boiler, respectively.

The Mary Ethel Costello school in Gloucester City and Captain James Lawrence school in Burlington City will also get attention.

The authority estimates that the cost for the 76 projects will be about $100 million. Most won't start until the end of the academic year; those that require architectural plans may wait until summer 2013, MacLean said.

If things don't move quickly, the Educational Law Center, which advocates for the state's poor, urban districts, has threatened to sue.

"If this turns out to be another list . . . we will litigate," said David Sciarra, the center's executive director, who said the state has a poor record for following through.

State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), who sponsored the recently enacted Urban Hope Act, which allows for publicly funded but privately run "renaissance schools," had similar misgivings.

"If [Schools Development Authority] would be remotely on time, we wouldn't have to" fix Fetters, Norcross said. "They are putting Band-Aids on facilities that need to be replaced."


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Staff writer Matt Katz contributed to this article.

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