Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron sat down with NJ Spotlight reporter Carly Sitrin who recently took an in-depth look into the history of the Schools Development Authority.
Aron: Carly, when and why was it created?
Sitrin: So the SDA as we know it came about in about 2007/2008. And that was through legislation that kind of created this new authority with governance and accountability after its predecessor, the School’s Construction Corporation, had come under fire for mismanagement, fraud and all sorts of other scandals.
Aron: So this is not the first big controversy/scandal — the one we’re experiencing now. It already flamed out and became a brand-new agency.
Sitrin: Yeah, absolutely. The school construction in New Jersey has a storied history full of political scandal, as well as kind of quiet, functional times as well. And so the most recent scandal is, kind of you know, 19 years coming.
Aron: So the Schools Construction Corporation, which preceded the SDA, was that created by Whitman or McGreevey?
Sitrin: So the Schools Construction Corporation was created through executive order by McGreevey, and that was part of, he wanted to make school construction a big part of his campaign and his governorship. He really wanted to point to being able to build all sorts of new schools in the Abbott districts and kind of making that one of his flagship platform items, so he really ramped up construction under his governorship. He put nearly a billion dollars into school financing, doubled or tripled the size of his staff to really fill it out.
Aron: Has the program worked, by and large?
Sitrin: It’s a little tough to say because the mission they’ve been tasked with, which is completely funding and overseeing construction in these 31 poorest districts in New Jersey, the enormity of it is kind of incomprehensible, right. If each one of these schools takes about five to six years to completely build and around $85 million, over that time period administrations change, people come and go, costs of materials and land change. And so while they have built a significant amount of schools since its inception, there’s still so much work left to do.
Aron: They do work beyond the 31 Abbott districts, as well. They do some work on emergency repairs in regular operating in districts.
Sitrin: Emergent repairs, yes. Regular operating district grants is done in terms of grant money, so they don’t oversee the construction itself. Different schools can apply for that grant money to be used for, you know, health and safety fixes, roof fixes, boiler fixes and things like that.
Aron: The agency is virtually out of money? I’m unclear on one thing you wrote. You said it only has $60 million left out of $12 billion, but you said that might be enough for six years-worth of projects?
Sitrin: So what [Lizette] Delgado-Polanco has said is that they have that money — it’s all committed already. So the $60 million is left in emergent funds which is for absolute emergencies — if there is a crisis that happens, a roof caves in, something tragic goes on — that $60 million is technically available for serious emergent projects. But Delgado-Polanco has been very clear about the fact that the agency is out of money. There’s no new money for new projects; there are several applications in asking for new money for serious capital improvements, but she has said that that money isn’t available. And the money that has been committed already will carry them through the next six years.
Aron: And Steve Sweeney — who’s on the opposite side within the Democratic schism, from Delgado-Polanco who’s a Murphy ally — Sweeney has said we should abolish the SDA, merge it into the EDA [Economic Development Authority]. The EDA can handle it. What’s the irony in that?
Sitrin: Well the irony there is that that’s been tried before. It was the first entity, it was the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act and that was part of the EDA. And what they found during that time, I think back in 2000, was that the EDA wasn’t equipped to handle the specific needs of construction — so things like masonry and land acquisition — they just weren’t well-versed in that. So Sweeney’s plan of rolling the SDA back into the EDA, and using that as a financing mechanism and putting the construction weight on the districts themselves could be catastrophic if many of these districts don’t have the capability to find architects, designers and masons to do the work.