Money Woes Force NJ to Stop Scouting New School Sites

Wed June 01, 2005 - Northeast Edition

TRENTON (AP) The troubled state agency responsible for building new schools in New Jersey has put the brakes on efforts to scout locations for the facilities, deciding to use the $181 million remaining for that job for construction of 70 ongoing projects.

“If we don’t have the money to buy the property and build the schools, let’s not spend the money looking at sites,” Schools Construction Corp. (SCC) head Jack Spencer told The Star-Ledger of Newark for Saturday, May 22 newspapers.

The SCC told 24 engineering firms that effective May 20 it was suspending their three-year site investigation contracts.

The firms were told to finish up their work and submit bills for payment. The order cancels siting work on projects that are not scheduled to be under construction by Dec. 10.

The firms were hired two years ago with an authorization to handle up to $8-million worth of work related to gauging the feasibility of proposed school locations.

SCC records show the firms have been paid just over $11 million of the $192 million set aside for the work.

Spencer said the SCC will continue to work on property acquisition, design and construction of the 70 projects now in the works.

The latest development with the SCC reflects Spencer’s estimations that projects now on the drawing board will eat up all of the $6 billion the state authorized five years ago under a state Supreme Court order to overhaul decrepit schools in 31 needy communities.

The decision also leaves in doubt the prospects for projects proposed but not started in those 31 communities. For example, only nine of a projected 40 new schools would move forward in Newark under the schedule outlined by Spencer on Friday.

“It’s very disappointing and getting more disappointing,” said Corwin Frost, an architect for Newark.

Stopping the siting process marks the third set of professional consulting contracts the SCC has canceled since an April report from state Inspector General Mary Jane Cooper took the agency to task for inadequate controls on spending.

Early in May, the SCC said it would scale back $460 million in consulting contracts with 13 engineering firms hired as project managers to oversee school work for the agency.

The SCC also has canceled a $25-million contract for temporary employees that Cooper had called into question.

The agency had hoped to kick off 82 new school projects this year with a total estimated price tag of $1.2 billion. However, new construction work has been suspended since March, when Cooper called for a freeze, citing concerns about waste.