ASSEMBLY DEMOCRATS SEEK ANSWERS ON SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION FUNDING

Education Panel Holds Hearing to Examine How Projects Were Chosen

Democratic members of the Assembly Education Committee today questioned Schools Development Authority (SDA) CEO Marc Larkins at a special hearing regarding the methodology used to determine which schools were eligible for funding under the SDA’s new capital plan.

After lengthy delays, Governor Christie recently announced a roster of 10 schools that will receive SDA funding this year, leaving off many high priority projects such as a new high school for Phillipsburg, which has been shovel ready for roughly six years.

During the hearing, the committee showed a video of a tour that Chairman Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr. recently took of the planned site in Phillipsburg where students are housed in trailers. To view the video, click here.

When you visit a school like Phillipsburg and see the conditions these students are forced to learn in, it’s amazing that they can maintain such a positive attitude,” said Diegnan (D-Middlesex). “After touring this site up close, I can’t imagine that there is any reasonable formula that would conceivably leave Phillipsburg off this list. It’s my hope that the SDA can shed some light today on the process used to determine funding eligibility.”

Many of the Democrats expressed dismay over the number of high priority projects that have been left off the list for funding this year, given the state of disrepair and overcrowding occurring at many of these schools.

“Make no mistake about it, the state of a student’s learning environment can affect their performance, morale, and above all their safety,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), who chaired today’s hearing in Diegnan’s absence. “Trenton Central High School has been slated for funding since 2004. This project has been put off for far too long and deserves to be made an emergent priority by the SDA. At the very least, we deserve an explanation as to why it was not included on this year’s list.”

“It would seem that there were many high priority projects left off this list,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex). “Take the 100-year-old Cleveland Street School in Orange, for example. Many of the school’s classrooms do not get warm until the afternoon because the boiler is old. Meanwhile, the basement houses the cafeteria as well as the only set of bathrooms for hundreds of students spread out over three floors.”

“It breaks your heart to see schools like Phillipsburg where the learning environment is stifled and children’s hopes are perpetually on hold,” said Assemblywoman Elease Evans (D-Bergen/Passaic). “This funding process must be transparent and equitable because the very future of countless students throughout our state depends on it.”

“Taxpayers and our children deserve full transparency when it comes to this funding process. To date, many questions remain,” said Assemblywoman Nellie Pou (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Hopefully this hearing will offer some clarification on this critical process.”

“We understand that funding is tight and not every project will move forward as quickly as everyone would hope,” said Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester). “However, there are many examples of critical, shovel-ready projects that have been inexplicably overlooked. In Gloucester City, they have spent $13 million to buy and tear down 70 properties for the Mary Alice Costello School. In Camden City, work on the Lanning Square School was already underway and halted, leaving the project shovel-ready and without funding.”

“It’s clear that further reforms are needed. One can only wonder what selection process was used to determine eligibility. Considering the lengthy delays in getting projects funded, and our limited tax dollars, it’s my sincere hope that politics and parochialism did not play a factor,” said Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex).