State must build promised Camden school

Lanning Square Elementary School in Camden was closed in 2002 after engineers determined the building could fall. (John Costello / Staff photographer, file)

New Jersey must find a way to fulfill a promise made nearly a decade ago to rebuild Camden’s Lanning Square School. The construction plans have been drawn and land cleared, at a cost of $10 million. But the supposedly shovel-ready site is nowhere near getting a new $42.4 million school. Instead, part of the land set aside for the state-of-the-art school has become a parking lot for a construction project favored by politically influential backers.

While the school project remains dormant, amid a field of wildflowers and broken dreams, the new Cooper Medical School of Rowan University is going up next door. An eyebrow-raising lease agreement allows the construction equipment to be parked on the school site. State officials insist that the lease for the medical-school project could be rescinded if the school construction gets back on track.

Advocates for children are now demanding an investigation into how this happened, and they deserve an explanation. The school construction delays unfairly left students in limbo, forcing them to attend other schools in the city. State officials also need to clear up whether Lanning Square — if it is rebuilt — will remain a traditional public school or become a privately run “transformation school” under a new public education experiment funded with tax dollars.

Earlier this year, Gov. Christie proposed legislation to create transformation schools for struggling school districts such as Camden’s. But many questions remain about the transformation schools idea and whether the Legislature will support it. A new version of the bill may be forthcoming. If approved, it could provide not only another school-choice option, but also enable the state to honor its commitment to build a new Lanning Square Elementary. Either way, school construction deserves priority status in Camden. The median age of the city’s schools is 80 years.

In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to upgrade schools in 31 poor districts, including Camden’s. But $8 billion allocated for the work ran out, in part, due to waste and possible fraud. Former Gov. Jon Corzine authorized additional funding for school construction and renewed the hope that a new Lanning Square would be built. But the project was halted last year amid more financial woes, leaving students trapped in a crumbling school built in the 1800s. The school was later closed when concrete began falling.

The community around Lanning Square has waited long enough. It’s time to give residents the school and chance for a better education for their children that was promised.