At Least $12.8B Needed to Complete NJ School Projects

Wed May 17, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Jeffrey Gold

TRENTON, NJ (AP) The state agency responsible for building new schools in poor districts said that it would cost at least $12.8 billion to complete 313 projects suspended last year after it had burned through its $6-billion budget.

Officials cautioned that the estimate by the Schools Construction Corp. (SCC) was speculative, noting that no work had been done on 133 of the projects, so little is known of their true cost.

In addition, the estimate is based on the unrealistic assumption that all work would be done this year. Extended to five years, the SCC estimate rises to $19.2 billion, and would hit $29.2 billion in 10 years.

The figures are disclosed in an annual report from the SCC and state Department of Education.

“It’s neither a blueprint for which schools will get built, or how many schools the state and the local districts will be able to afford,” said SCC Chairman Barry L. Zubrow, appointed recently to head the troubled agency by Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

Meanwhile Feb. 16, three Republican members of the Assembly Education Committee asked the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate findings by the state Office of the Inspector General of possible fraud at the SCC.

“It’s fair to say that $6 billion is on the table that may have been misspent,” said Assemblyman Bill Baroni, R-Mercer and Middlesex counties.

Legislators may not be eager to provide more money without a criminal probe, said Assemblyman Joseph Malone, R-Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean.

“I don’t know how we can move forward until this is cleaned up,” Malone said at a GOP news conference in the Statehouse. “There is an embedded rat’s nest within that organization that has to be burned out.”

Asked to respond, Corzine press secretary Anthony Coley said, “The governor wants to make certain that the right controls are in place to ensure that the program delivers quality schools that meet the needs of our children at the best possible price, and his rhetoric matches the reality.”

Corzine has directed the attorney general to help the SCC review all contracts and projects and seek the recovery of overcharges, Coley said.

In appointing Zubrow and six new SCC board members, Corzine also named a special counsel to the agency who would report directly to the governor. Corzine also directed a group of Cabinet members to review all SCC procedures and report to him on how to fix the SCC by March 15.

The SCC was created in 2002 by then-Gov. James E. McGreevey to speed construction and repair of schools in the state’s neediest areas, known as Abbott districts, which now number 31.

It has managed approximately 600 school projects. When the SCC had spent approximately its entire allocation by mid-2005, it suspended all work, aside from 59 projects in Abbott districts. Those projects are not included in Feb. 16’s estimates.

Although lawmakers may be leery of spending more money, the state Supreme Court is unlikely to give them any alternative.

The estimates revealed are partly in response to a court order issued in December. At the time, the state’s highest court did not say it would demand they all be funded, but its track record suggests it would want some action.

The order was one of a series of rulings, stemming from the Abbott v. Burke case in 1981, finding that the state Constitution requires New Jersey to provide a “thorough and efficient” education for all children. In 1998, the court found that the state was required to improve the physical conditions of schools in poor districts.