Mark Larkins, Schools Development Authority director, told the Joint Committee on Public Schools Wednesday that the school construction selection program “was not done in a vacuum.”
He added that a state auditor’s report declared the 2008 capital plan, which called for 52 school construction projects under the Corzine administration, “flawed.”
He added that the SDA took steps to make it more efficient and has helped move “emerging” projects. Among the improvements made, he said, were:
Altering the change-order review process, which he said helps in “protecting limited state dollars.”
Reducing the SDA workforce by 20 percent to 207 employees.
He added that nobody knows how many projects were originally considered when coming up with the 2008 capital plan.
“All we know was that 52 were selected,” he said.
Some districts were slated to have a school construction project regardless of need, he said.
Larkins said the agency’s historical problem has been “we’ve done nothing but make promises.”
He said the previous administration said 25 schools would break ground by election year, when only a mere three did.
When it came to moving projects forward, Larkins said the projects that were selected were ones that were most promising, following design reviews.
He said the agency was intent on having schools that would serve as models of standardization, a concept which New Jersey has yet to embrace as closely as other states.
Unlike other states, New Jersey doesn’t have basic room layouts for classrooms, cafeterias, and auditoriums, according to Larkins.
“Every single project has been designed from scratch,” he said.
Larkins said standardization helps save time and money. Any time there is a new design, “unforeseen issues” could arise, he said.
Assemblywoman Joan Voss, (D-38), Bergen, asked Larkins how come in his year at SDA that the agency hasn’t designed any blueprints that would serve as standardization models, given that he’s such a proponent of it.
“Don’t you think it behooves (SDA) to provide basic plans,” she said. “They’re not given designs that would deal with their needs,” she said of the schools.
Larkins said he wanted to but the agency itself had to be reformed before any specific aspects could be pursued.
“We were asked to reform the organization and review the capital program,” he said.
He predicted it could take a year for the agency to design such model blueprints.
After the hearing, Sen. Donald Norcross (D5), Camden/Gloucester, said in a release: “Although Mr. Larkins provided meaningful details about the school construction projects that the SDA has selected for advancement, serious questions remain regarding the transparency and objectivity of this process. Meanwhile, children in Camden City, Gloucester City, Trenton, and across this state must continue to attend substandard, often dangerous school facilities. That is why I look forward to seeing the results of the report regarding this selection process that Assembly Speaker Oliver has requested of the state auditor. The children of our public schools deserve to know how and when they can expect relief.”