Two weeks ago, Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation placing school construction under the new leadership of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA) due to fiscal problems with the former SCC.
WNY School No. 3, located at 55th Street and Kennedy Boulevard, just finished demolition and will soon begin construction.
Opening this September will be the Early Childhood Education Center in Union City, and West New York Public School No. 4.
The SDA also awarded a $20.4 million construction contract last Wednesday to D&K Construction Co. for extensive renovations to WNY School No. 2, which will take place over the next two years.
Also currently underway is the new Union City High School, which will combine the existing Emerson and Union Hill high schools. Those schools, as well as the Jose Marti Middle School, will be turned into junior high schools housing students in sixth though ninth grades.
There are, however, 27 projects statewide that were deferred in the past by the SCC. They will still be funded in the design and bid documentation phases, but construction will be on hold until additional funding is approved by the legislature.
Some projects on hold
Among those 27 deferral projects are renovations to West New York's Harry L. Bain School, and the new Christopher Columbus School to be built in Union City.
However, the site allocated for the Columbus School project, 1501 Palisade Ave., was at the center of controversy over the last year. The SCC alleged that property owner David Lopez, as well as the Union City Zoning Board, purposely drove up the purchase price of the property. The site, which was once a vacant lot, was originally priced at $326,000. After the SCC cited their interest in the property, a new apartment building went up with approved variances from the zoning board, which brought up the purchase price to $1.48 million. The SCC then had to knock the building down.
Although the full amount was paid, there is currently a lawsuit against Lopez to retrieve the some of the money. There is a court date on the matter scheduled for this September.
Over the last three years, both Union City and West New York have opened new schools: the Jose Marti Middle School in Union City and the West New York Middle Schools.
In addition, Union City also opened a new athletic field, located at the middle school. West New York put finishing touches on their own athletic field, which is adjacent to both the middle school and Memorial High School.
As for when more funding will be made available, the state legislature is out of session until after the upcoming November election. Once they are back in session, the management team of the SDA will present requests for more funding, and have a working figure of an additional $3.25 billion.
"There are still hundreds of schools throughout the state, particularly in the Abbott Districts, that still need to be built," said Anthony Dragona, business administrator for the Union City Board of Education.
Criticism creates change
The SCC was founded after July 18, 2000, when the New Jersey Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act allocated $8.6 billion for public school construction and renovation statewide, which included $6 billion for the 31 urban "Abbott" special-needs districts.
In July 2002, then Gov. James McGreevey created the New Jersey SCC to oversee the school construction projects.
However, over the last few years, the SCC was criticized for overspending on projects and fiscal mismanagement.
When Corzine took office in 2006, he created a committee to review SCC operations and develop a new process for school construction. The committee recommended a complete overhaul of management.
Since its inception, the SCC has completed 30 new schools and 26 major renovations. But funding shrank with only a few of the beginning projects underway, with over 300 projects still pending.
In 2005, during a meeting the legislative Joint Committee on Public Schools, Al Koeppe, chairman of the SCC at the time, testified to some of the problems the agency had been experiencing, as well as some of the reforms being done to rectify the problems. Among them included ethical business practices, internal controls and operational improvements.
The last set of reforms recommended by the panel was done through the state legislature and signed by Corzine on Aug. 6.
It included renaming the agency to the SDA, as well changes to land acquisition policies and a new process to sequence projects in the Abbott Districts according to educational priorities and needs.
It also provided the possibility for Abbott Districts to manage their own projects if they demonstrate the capacity to do so.
The new SDA will focus solely on the construction of schools of all schools, while the New Jersey Economic Development Authority retains the responsibility to provide financing for the projects.
"They put more focus on accountability on their part," said Dragona, "which could only benefit the [school] districts."
He added, "There has been a tremendous amount of communication between the [SDA] and the district. It's a much more open process."
Because of the SCC's financial difficulties, hundreds of school construction projects around the state were suspended.
Yet the management team at the time approved a Capital Plan, which included final list of 59 projects they felt could be completed with the remaining monies. However, as it later turned out they were still under funded.
"The unfortunate reality is that the Capital Plan had a shortfall of over $400 million the day it was adopted," said Scott Weiner, the CEO of the SDA. "This occurred due to a lack of complete project budgets and accurate cost projections."
After further research was done and the new management team stepped in, the SCC approved a plan to complete 32 of the projects included in the Capital Plan, and defer construction of 27 projects.
"Now it's a more realistic approach to building," said Dragona. "The agency is only building what they have the money for."
The $3.25 billion the SDA will be requesting in the fall is split as $2.5 billion for Abbott District projects and $750 million for projects in suburban districts throughout New Jersey. Jessica Rosero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org