Report: NJ Should Abolish School Construction Agency

Wed April 19, 2006 - Northeast Edition

TRENTON, NJ (AP) New Jersey should abolish its troubled Schools Construction Corp. (SCC) and replace it with a new state agency to manage construction of schools in the state’s poorest communities, according to a high-level report given to Gov. Jon S. Corzine on March 15.

The report, from a committee appointed by the governor, called for a new agency to be created under the watch of the Treasury Department. Corzine said in a statement that he would consider the plan.

The officials who crafted the report said the recommendations should make the inefficient school construction process smoother and restore public confidence in it.

It had some early fans. Assemblywoman Joan Voss, D-Bergen, issued a two-word statement on the plan to end the brief run of the SCC: “Good riddance.”

The report called for making plans to keep the current work of the SCC going — it is now overseeing $3 billion worth of construction projects — while a new agency is created.

The SCC was established in 2002 to streamline school construction, especially in 31 poor communities where the state Supreme Court ordered New Jersey to update school buildings.

But the agency has been fraught with waste and, according to some official reports, the potential for fraud. It has committed its entire initial allocation of $6 billion for projects in those poor districts faster than expected — and with far fewer new schools to show for it than expected.

Instead of choosing school projects based on how fast they could be completed as the SCC did, the new agency would use criteria to weigh how much the projects would help reach educational goals, said Scott Weiner, interim head of the agency and chairman of the Interagency Working Group on School Construction, which drafted the report.

While educators and advocates for children said they welcomed any changes that would achieve those goals, they had reservations about whether a new agency would be different than the current one and feared that administrative changes would delay projects.

“Anything that’s going to delay or hold up the process is totally unacceptable,” said Mary Stansky, the school superintendent in Gloucester City and the president of the Urban Schools Superintendents Association of New Jersey. “What the process really needs is greater flexibility to meet the individual needs of the districts.”

The working group on March 15 also revealed yet another funding problem for the agency. Last July, the SCC decided to allocate its last $1.5 billion for 59 projects. It’s looking like those buildings will cost an additional $300 million to $400 million, Weiner said. He said one of the main problems is that no one accounted for inflation in planning the construction.

The new agency, which the Legislature would have to establish, will have a narrower focus and concentrate on being a construction manager, Weiner said.

It would transfer its job of making grants to subsidize school-building projects in wealthier districts to the Department of Education.

And local governments would take a bigger role in putting together the land on which new schools would be built. Assembling land for schools has been one of the biggest challenges in getting schools built, especially in cities. This month, the SCC agreed to back out of a plan to build an elementary school in Passaic across the street from an X-rated theater and a hotel known for prostitution.

The panel that drafted the recommendations did suggest the state hold steady in one area: It called for no more money to be allocated to the SCC, or to the agency that succeeds it, until its problems are fixed.

There’s likely to be pressure from the state Supreme Court to keep the projects moving. The court has ruled that the state must improve facilities in the poor districts. A state report released in February found there was at least $12.8 billion of work left to go.

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