Newark-Based Law Group Asks N.J. Legislators to Investigate Delays in Repair Work in Urban Schools

January 20, 2012

NEWARK — The Christie Administration’s failure to complete repair work in dilapidated urban schools has a Newark-based law group calling on state legislators to investigate the delays, which have stranded thousands of students and staff in hazardous facilities.

The Schools Development Authority is responsible for construction and renovation in 31 of the state’s poorest districts — including Newark, Camden and Jersey City — but it has either rejected or failed to complete up to 700 work requests filed by districts in June.

"This statement raises substantial and grave issues regarding the conduct of these agencies in fulfilling their legal obligation to address school facilities needs in SDA districts," Education Law Center Executive Director David Sciarra wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

Of the 700 requests, 400 were rejected by the authority for failing to meeting prioritization criteria. But the 300 requests that were approved are in jeopardy because of funding concerns.

The cost to complete the requests for roofing patchwork, boiler replacements and electrical rewiring "far exceeds" the $100 million allocated by the state to finance such repairs, authority spokeswoman Andrea Pasquine said.

Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) applauded Sciarra’s letter and said he would hold hearings on the authority’s inaction.

"It is time that this unacceptable and neglectful failure is addressed," Diegnan said.

In some cities, for example, some schools have had to be vacated because requested repairs were not made.

While the price tag to complete the approved requests remains unknown, projects requested by Newark and Camden alone would cost at least $336 million, said facilities directors from those cities.

The authority did complete some work in Newark over the past year, including 24 requests for repairs such as clock and gym floor replacement, said Steve Morlino, executive director of facilities management for the city’s schools.

It has not finished masonry and window repairs at Newark Vocational High School, built in 1894, nor mold and asbestos remediation at Wilson Avenue School, built in 1881.

"If we’re not going to build new buildings, we need to keep the ones we have online," Morlino said. "You wouldn’t let your roof at home leak for years and years, why would you want that in your child’s school?"

Nearly a year ago, Gov. Chris Christie announced the authority would begin construction of 10 schools selected from a list of 52 that had been prioritized before Christie took office. Construction has not started on any of these schools.

In Camden, the state addressed only three repair projects over the past year, said Wendy Kunz, director of Abbott facilities construction for the city. Of the 158 requests Camden filed in June, fewer than two dozen have been approved.

Among the requests that didn’t make the cut are pleas for bathroom ventilation and window replacements.

"These windows slam shut once you open them," Kutz said. "You could easily lose a finger."