TRENTON – Trenton Democratic legislators cheered the news that the agency in charge of overseeing repairs at the state’s most run-down schools will have new leadership.
But whether new leadership at the Schools Development Authority will mean progress for the dilapidated structure known as Trenton Central High School remains to be seen, they said.
On Thursday, the administration announced several more second-term Cabinet changes, including SDA head Marc Larkins taking over at the Comptroller’s office, and the governor’s chief counsel, Charles McKenna, taking over at SDA.
SDA is in charge of billions of dollars worth of work in new construction or emergency repairs at schools throughout the state, but 15th District Sen. Shirley Turner and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman have long criticized SDA’s lack of work under the Christie administration’s first term.
“The track record speaks for itself,’’ said Gusciora. “It can’t get any worse than the last four years under Larkins.”
Gusciora said that “The Corzine administration set aside $150 million for Trenton and then (Chris) Christie came in and took it off the table, and there was no plan in place.’’
Bonnie Watson Coleman said that while anything is possible with a new SDA leadership in place, she does not believe it is probable.
Larkins, she said “was an instrument of the administration and followed orders.’’ She blames the administration and an “obstructionist bureaucracy’’ for the lack of work at TCHS.
The conditions at TCHS – including a condemned auditorium, buckled floorboards and leaking stairwells – have drawn widespread attention.
This summer the administration did issue a $3 million contract for architectural pre-design work at TCHS to address some of the more serious problems.
But criticism of SDA is not limited to Trenton schools.
This fall, during the election season, a coalition of groups including the N.J. Education Association and the N.J. Work Environment Council came to the Statehouse and displayed photos of leaks, mold, warped floors and other problems at schools throughout the state, including Paterson and Phillipsburg.
The activists wanted SDA to release nearly $4 billion in bond funding to get started on repairs at schools where they say students, staff and teachers are at risk.
SDA responded to the criticism of inaction at Trenton Central High in a prepared release at that time that said “The SDA is investing millions of dollars for construction and improvements for Trenton Central High School for the benefit of the community and its students.
“Emergent projects have already been completed, while design of the overall improvements is under way, which means large-scale construction will begin by the end of the school year when students are out of the building.”
But Turner is among those not getting overly optimistic that a change at the top of SDA will mean change at the facilities it oversees.
“I would like to think so,” Turner said on Thursday, “but I don’t think Marc Larkins is calling the shots.”
So she does not believe a new SDA administrator will make a difference. “It’s just shuffling the chairs, so to speak,” Turner said.
Gusciora said he intends to invite McKenna to tour TCHS and see the conditions there once he takes over at SDA.