Report raises questions of how N.J. chose school-construction projects

TRENTON - A major school-construction project in Camden that the state put on hold this year was considered a greater priority by the Schools Development Authority than half of the 10 projects approved to proceed, records released Wednesday show.

The proposed Lanning Square school, which is part of the city's largest redevelopment effort and has involved eminent domain, received a score of 6.5 out of 8.5 - better than five projects approved for Paterson, West New York, and Jersey City.

State officials said other factors played a role in developing the school-construction plan, which won approval Wednesday morning from the authority's board in Trenton.

The new plan was born out of efforts by Gov. Christie's administration to improve the efficiency of a program to replace deteriorating schools in the state's neediest districts. Since his announcement last month that nearly $600 million would be spent on 10 projects this year, stakeholders have questioned how the state whittled down its list from the 52 projects approved in 2008 under Christie's predecessor, Jon S. Corzine.

On Wednesday, the SDA made public records showing how it ranked an expanded list of more than 100 proposals around the state, evaluating a project's readiness for construction and whether it was efficient, both overall and in response to "educational need."

But the final decision took into account other factors that elevated, over the Lanning Square school, lower-ranked projects, such as replacing the Oliver Street School in Newark. Those factors included Department of Education rankings that addressed the projects' educational priority: whether a school was overcrowded and whether its planned replacement was an appropriate size.

Proposals to renovate the Pyne Point Family Middle School, renovate two schools in Pemberton Township, and build another school in Burlington City also did not make the list of 10, although they were ranked higher by the SDA than several approved projects.

All five of those South Jersey projects, however, garnered far lower ratings from the Education Department on their educational priority than the 10 that made the list.

Wendy Kunz, director of construction for Camden schools, said she believed that the SDA did an excellent job of evaluating projects, but that it didn't take into account local officials' expertise or how substandard some buildings were.

Also, the Lanning Square site, she said, has been prepared and is ready for construction.

The most important factor in the SDA's selection process was whether the projects fit into the agency's goal to save money by standardizing school-building designs, which the program has never done, according to officials.

Marc Larkins, the authority's CEO, told the crowd at Wednesday's meeting that "if we can achieve some level of standardization, it will allow us to reach more projects because it will save us more money, and that's something I'm willing to sacrifice some time for."

Kristen MacLean, communications director for the SDA, noted that nine of the approved projects were for elementary schools with roughly the same enrollment and at the same stage of development.

"These schools make the most sense for a small program to test out how well standardization works," MacLean said.

Projects that didn't make the list of 10, she added, were not being shelved.

"It doesn't mean it's not a priority anymore," MacLean said. "It simply means it is our obligation, our responsibility, to go back to the districts and work with them and get those projects to meet the . . . standards that we set and to get them ready to advance in the future."

 


Contact staff writer Maya Rao

at 609-989-8990 or mrao@phillynews.com.