School Construction Reform to Give Local Officials More Duties

Wed March 22, 2006 - Northeast Edition
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TRENTON, NJ (AP) New Jersey’s school building program — which has hundreds of projects on hold after blowing through a $6-billion budget — may end up transferring site-location, building-design and possibly some financial responsibilities to local officials.

“Local school districts and municipalities cannot be mere takers of these facilities,” Barry Zubrow, a former Goldman Sachs executive recently appointed chairman of the state Schools Construction Corp., said during a March 3 speech.

“Design, construction and siting need to be placed in the very hands of the people who are using the schools,” Zubrow said during an address in Trenton to the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

The Schools Construction Corp. was set up in 2002 to handle the massive effort of building new schools in 31 of New Jersey’s poorest communities under a state Supreme Court-mandated effort. But it ran through the $6 billion set aside for that effort far faster than expected — and with fewer new schools to show for the spending than expected.

The state Inspector General later reported that mismanagement and oversight gaps in the agency left it vulnerable to “waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

With the money running out last July, the agency selected 59 projects for a funded “capital program,” placing hundreds of other projects on hold. State officials estimated in February that it will cost more than $12 billion to finish the suspended projects.

“We are midstream in a $6-billion construction program that has gone off track,” Zubrow said.

Zubrow does not expect to seek more funds until an overhaul of the Schools Construction Corp.’s management and operations is completed. Reforms will include more responsibility for local officials, as well as higher priority for projects where localities are able to contribute more toward the effort, he said.

The Schools Construction Corp. has spent $387 million on acquiring land for school projects, but millions was spent on land no longer slated for schools, or requiring millions more in cleanup because they are contaminated with toxins.

David Sciarra, an attorney who has argued on behalf of students in needy communities, told The Star-Ledger of Newark that Zubrow’s strategy of shifting more responsibility to localities made sense.

“The state should be able to say, ’If we’re going to pay for this school and build these schools, you’ve got the responsibility to make sure you deliver sites that are appropriate,’”Sciarra said.

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