Larkins appears before Assembly Education Committee

Schools Development Authority Executive Director Marc Larkins appeared before the Assembly Education Committee Tuesday  morning to answer questions on how new school construction projects are being  prioritized.

The SDA has put together a list of 10 projects that Larkins said will utilize standardized design in order to help control costs, but some lawmakers have raised concerns over schools that were left off the list.

Larkins told the state Board of Education earlier this month that the announcement made in 2008 that 25 schools were to begin construction was made before an election year by the previous administration. And he had said in an earlier Senate committee hearing that SDA no longer would be in the business of over-promising and under-delivering.

But 15th District legislators, including committee member Bonnie Watson Coleman of Ewing, took issue last week with the SDA priorities and called for funding to be authorized for Trenton Central  High School.

Coleman told Larkins Tuesday that among other things, there are questions about how projects were left off the list of 10 projects when she said their ranking exceeded that of some of the ones that made it.

Larkins told the committee that the governor said they would not support cost-overruns anymore at SDA, and that he was asked to review the SDA 2008 plans, including the 52 projects on it.

He said a review was undertaken because, among other things, the state auditor criticized the 2008 plan, including the fact that 27 of the projects had never actually been reviewed. He said the statute mandates reviews every five years, as well.

He cited inefficient spending and lack of progress on the 2008 plan.  Of the 52 schools in that plan, 25 of them had been expected to begin by September 2009, which was before the gubernatorial election.   Only three of the 25 had made it into construction, he said.

And two of the projects in Paterson and in Passaic, had to be stopped because of “major problems,” Larkins said.

He said that following the review, they developed a list of 110 projects, which does not represent each project that was requested in districts’ long-range plans. He said they tried to identify the ones that were “most pressing.” They boiled that down to the 2011 list of projects.

He said that in the 2008 plan, there was an unwritten bias against high school projects, and a bias toward those that included preschools.  He said they tried to remove these various kinds of biases as they developed their program.

Coleman raised questions at that point about the Department of Education’s judgment and criteria in leaving off the list of suggested projects for SDA a school that may be considered unsafe.

“I am confused,’’ Coleman said, in trying to make sense of DOE’s determination process.

Larkins said, though, that DOE had some input into the SDA determination process, but in terms of SDA’s scoring system, the responsibilities were divided.

DOE looked to educational concerns, while SDA looked to construction issues, Larkins said, including construction costs per square foot.

“At the end of the day we don’t have decent schools in the places that need them the most,’’ Coleman said in expressing frustration with the thought processes that went into the 2011 project list.

Trenton has been slated for a new high school since 2004, but after not being funded in the first round, it was approved in 2008 by the Legislature for funding. Approximately $175 million had been budgeted for construction but various delays – including some community-based resistance to losing some of the distinctive iconic architectural elements of the old school – kept it from getting under way.

Fifteenth-district lawmakers cited numerous problems at the school, including leaking roofs, damp carpets and poor air quality.

Larkins earlier this month had emphasized the need for standardization, or creating schools of similar design in order to cut costs and get construction projects moving to enable students to have the best facilities possible. He dismissed the perception the schools will have “cookie cutter” designs.

After his testimony before the committee, Larkins was scheduled to answer committee members’ questions.

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