N.J. lawmakers blast slow pace of school repairs, construction

Posted: March 06, 2013

TRENTON - State school officials say they will begin construction on a dozen new schools this year, after virtually no building in the three years since Gov. Christie took office.

Yet many dilapidated schools await emergency repairs to flood-damaged hallways, broken windows, and collapsing walls, school advocates said at a hearing Tuesday at the Statehouse. A rusted staircase collapsing at Pyne Point Middle School in Camden is just one of many examples, said advocate Mo Kinberg.

Lawmakers criticized the Schools Development Authority (SDA) for not working quickly enough.

"What's preventing you from being more aggressive in starting these projects?" said State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), cochairman with State Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex) of the facilities and construction subcommittee of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools.

Marc Larkins, the authority's chief executive officer, defended the agency's pace, arguing that school districts have taken responsibility for the majority of "emergent repairs," those deemed so hazardous that they posed "imminent peril" to the health and safety of students and staff.

Of the 119 emergent repairs the state approved in 2008, local districts agreed to take on 81. As of Tuesday, only 35 of those jobs had been completed, Larkins said. The SDA has completed 32 of the 37 repair jobs it took over in 2008, he said.

Norcross said the SDA should not "dump" the blame or the responsibility onto the districts. He urged the authority to do more.

"Your infrastructure is set up to do this," he said of the repairs. "The school districts' is not."

The SDA's actions have been controversial under Christie, a Republican, after he halted a $3.9 billion plan by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine to build 52 schools. Many districts already had secured sites; homes taken by eminent domain had been bulldozed.

When he took office in 2010, Christie asked the SDA to reevaluate those plans. Since then, fenced-off lots in Newark, Camden, and other struggling districts have sat vacant, sometimes gathering trash, as officials waited for SDA's go-ahead, said State Sen. Teresea Ruiz (D., Essex).

In Gloucester City, four blocks that included 68 homes and two businesses were demolished in 2004 to make way for a middle school that has not been built. Parents in the community are frustrated, Norcross said.

"They were thinking their 5-year-old may go to school there," he said. "At the rate we're going, they're going to be out of high school."

Norcross also was surprised to hear that the authority had spent $331,700 over the last five years to pay a fire marshal to stand watch every day at International High School in Paterson. The school building, completed in 2008, has a smoke-exhaust problem that remains a fire hazard.

"You still have a fire marshal, huh? You can't make this stuff up," he said.

Larkins said the problem, which the Christie administration inherited, should have been caught before construction. The authority may be operating at a slower pace, he said, but is being careful to avoid mistakes like that.

Committee members also asked Larkins to provide more detailed financial information. The SDA has trimmed its operating budget from $50 million in 2010 to $36 million this year, Larkins said. The authority also has $3.5 billion in school facility bonds for repairing and building schools. Under Christie's administration, only one school has been built, and schools including Pyne Point Middle could have to wait until 2017 for repairs, advocates said.

"Where is our money, and why is it sitting there?" Rice asked at the beginning of the hearing.

Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R., Morris) also suggested that the authority set deadlines for repair work done by the districts themselves. If the districts cannot meet the deadline, she said, the SDA should take over the job. The SDA pays for repairs regardless, and delays often end up costing more money, she said.

At the close of the hearing, Norcross said he was happy that some construction was finally under way.

"Change is coming, but, unfortunately," he said, "we all know that it can't come quick enough."

Contact Joelle Farrell

at 856-779-3237

or jfarrell@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @joellefarrell.

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