Accelify Blog

Fifty N.J. School Construction Projects Are Stuck in Limbo (NJ)

May 18, 2010

In 2006, students at the A. Chester Redshaw Elementary School in New Brunswick moved into a temporary warehouse facility with no playground or auditorium, but with the promise a new state-of-the-art school would soon be built for them.

Four y ears later, they’re still in the warehouse — and still waiting.

Redshaw Elementary is one of more than 50 New Jersey schools in limbo as state funding for construction has been caught up in years of mismanagement scandals, financial crises and red tape. The delays have left many frustrated districts — from Newark to Perth Amboy to Camden — unsure if their students will ever get out of temporary classrooms.

"We understand New Jersey has an economic crisis, but we don’t have a school," New Brunswick Superintendent Richard Kaplan said.

After months of uncertainty, state officials said shovels may be in the ground soon on many stalled school construction projects. Last month, the state said it will borrow $500 million for the state Schools Development Authority to start building again.

"We are excited about the governor’s continued support of this program," said Marc Larkins, the new head of the authority. "The authority is committed to providing safe, modern schools for our students while devoting ourselves to the highest standards of accountability and efficiency."

However, authority officials said they still have no timetable for when districts will hear whether they will get funding to build their new schools. The authority will work with the state Department of Education to determine which projects will get funding once the money starts arriving.

They have plenty from which to choose.

There are 50 school construction projects in various stages of development and another 12 under construction, Schools Development Authority officials said. The authority also has a list of 134 emergency repair projects addressing health and safety problems in schools across the state and an additional 1,004 ongoing grant projects in suburban districts.

Gov. Chris Christie has charged Larkins — a former federal prosecutor he appointed in January to revamp the authority — with overseeing a review of all the projects to determine which deserve funding. During his campaign, Christie was an outspoken critic of what he called a rampant waste of taxpayer funds at the Schools Development Authority.

In one of his first acts as governor, Christie stopped the authority from making a $1.2 million payment for a $28.7 million high school in Burlington City that was nearly $17 million over budget.

Education advocates are keeping a close eye as the Christie administration reshapes the authority, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark group that works to improve education in the state’s poorest districts.

"My worry is that the SDA will run out of money … and all these projects in which we’ve invested millions of dollars are going to remain on the drawing board," Sciarra said. "We have kids in temporary spaces that frankly are unacceptable for long-term educational use."

The problems date back to the old Schools Construction Corp., the troubled state agency that oversaw school building projects. Investigations by the state Inspector General and state Auditor found the corporation had mismanaged and wasted millions of dollars. The agency failed to complete an order by the state Supreme Court to repair or replace aging schools in New Jersey’s 31 poorest districts under terms of the landmark Abbott vs. Burke school funding lawsuit.

In 2007, the Legislature abolished the Schools Construction Corp. and re placed it with the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, a reformed authority with expanded measures to control costs. But criticism of the program continued and Christie ordered a review.

The turmoil in Trenton, coupled with Christie’s proposed school funding cuts, has left many educators unsure what to say to students and teachers awaiting new schools.

At Redshaw Elementary in New Brunswick, about 10 teachers have quit since the school moved to its temporary warehouse location from its now-demolished original home in a bustling residential neighborhood. Randall Miller, a fourth-grade teacher, said he has stuck it out though his warehouse classroom lacks windows and a sense of permanency.

"Just the idea of knowing it’s not really a school," Miller said.

At Elliott Street School in Newark, children constantly ask when their new school is coming.

"We have no answers for them," said Esther Diaz, the school’s literacy coach.

Lightning struck the school in 2006. Since then, Elliott Street’s 473 pupils have been split into three groups housed in leased locations more than a mile apart. The principal shuttles between the three temporary schools every day.

Emma Nunez, a fourth-grade teacher, noted proudly that Elliott Street’s students have met minimum annual benchmarks on federally standardized tests.

"We’ve succeeded so far," Nunez said. "But imagine the possibilities if we were all in the same school."