[Editor's note: Additional comments by school officials have been added to this story.]
PATERSON, NJ - Paterson was among 18 cities picked to get new schools under a construction plan unveiled by Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday, but local education officials say the proposal fails to meet the city’s needs.
Christie named eight top priority projects around the state which would get a total of $675 million in funding through the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA). But none of those were in Paterson.
A second category that vaguely listed seven cities with “high educational priority needs that require further discussions with the District” identified Paterson’s elementary school level as among them. But the announcement did not say how much money – if any – had been set aside for that category of projects and when work might start.
Paterson also was left out of a third category of specific projects that would address “serious facility deficiencies.”
“Are you serious about that? That is crazy,’’ said Paterson Schools Commissioner Errol Kerr about Paterson being left off the top priority list. “I can’t believe they would not put Paterson on the list for major improvements.’’
Kerr said he was unfamiliar with the conditions of school buildings in the other cities, but he couldn't see how they could be any worse than those in Paterson. Kerr also found it odd that the state would say it needed further discussions with city education officials about Paterson's school building needs considering that the district is run by the state. "They have been here, they have seen what the needs are,'' Kerr said.
Board of Education President Willa Mae Taylor saw politics at work. “Don’t you see what’s going on here?’’ she asked . “Paterson is primarily Democratic and he’s Republican and he’s running for office. He wants to be vice president.’’
“We’ve been begging for new schools forever because the ones we got we can’t fix them fast enough,’’ Taylor added.
Some of Paterson’s schools are more than a 100 years old. Many are overcrowded and antiquated. Just last week during a visit to Paterson, acting New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf acknowledged the substandard condition of Paterson school buildings.
"If we're not the highest priority, I'd hate to see what the other schools look like,'' said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly of Paterson. "We've got schools with noi heat. We've got schools with wiondows that don;t work. Our schools are so antiquated it's ridiculous.''
"When it comes to school funding, it looks like we're the stepchild,'' Wimberly added.
State-appointed schools superintendent was unavailable for comment early Wednesday afternoon. District spokeswoman Terry Corallo said, “The district is appreciative of the Governor’s and the SDA’s support towards addressing our many school facility challenges.’’
Paterson Schools Commissioner Jonathan Hodges had a somewhat more skeptical reaction to the governor’s announcement. “I think that it is wonderful that the governor and the SDA feel that after two-and-a-half years they are ready to move forward,’’ Hodges said. “But we have heard that before. I hope that Paterson's needs, which the Department of Education says are the worst in the state, will finally get addressed in a manner that is commensurate with that assessment.’’
In the governor’s press release, the top executive at the SDA, Marc Larkins, said that the 10 projects named in the agency’s 2011 construction portfolio “are scheduled to advance as was planned.’’ Among those 10 were two Paterson projects - the $61 million construction of a new School 16 and the $42 million construction of a new city school at Marshall and Hazel streets. Those are among seven that Larkins said “will advance into construction procurement and predevelopment activities in 2012.’’
“When I see it, I’ll believe it,’’ said Taylor. “Every time they say that to us, it doesn’t happen.’’
“We are still waiting for definitive dates for the resumption of construction of Hazel- Marshall and the start of school 16,’’ Hodges said. “Perhaps this will mark the start of substantive action on these projects.”
SDA spokeswoman said the state planned to advertise for construction bids for those two projects by the end of June. But the work may be priminary site preparation and not fullscale construction, she said.
Shortly after taking office in 2010, Christie imposed a freeze on the state’s school construction program, saying the system had been plagued by inefficiencies and mismanagement that was wasting taxpayers’ money.
“For years, the SDA was allowed to operate without any accountability or supervision, resulting in a disastrous legacy that featured wasteful spending and cost overruns, a bloated bureaucracy and empty promises on the number of schools to be built and completed,” said Governor Christie in Wednesday’s press release. “Exactly one year ago today, I promised we would not let history repeat itself, implementing meaningful reforms and key changes that have given the SDA the means to construct school facilities projects in efficient and cost effective ways for the first time in twelve years.’’
In that announcement a year ago, Christie picked 10 priority schools, a decision that left dozens of projects that had received state approvals prior to the Christie administration off the list. Since then, progress has been slow on those 10 projects, drawing criticism from education advocates around the state. Only two have begun “constructions procurement” in the past year.
“Exactly how many new schools have been built since the Christie administration has taken over?’’ Hodges said. “One wonders how many new schools could have been built in this period when construction costs were at the lowest in decades? Certainly, the needs haven't diminished while they have been busy planning. The cost savings from their planning could have been enhanced had they been building during this depressed construction period, saving the taxpayers millions more.’’
Here are the projects Christie unveiled during a press conference on Wednesday in West New York:
Projects addressing high educational priority needs, representing a state investment of almost $675 million:
Gloucester City – Gloucester City Middle School
Keansburg – Caruso Elementary School
New Brunswick – Paul Robeson Community Elementary School
Newark – Elliot Street Elementary School
Newark – South Street Elementary School
Passaic – Dayton Avenue Elementary School Campus
Phillipsburg – Phillipsburg High School
West New York – Memorial High School
Projects addressing high educational priority needs that require further discussions with the District:
Elizabeth – Elementary School grade level
Garfield – Elementary School grade level
Harrison – Middle School grade level
Millville – High School grade level
Paterson – Elementary School grade level
Perth Amboy – All grade levels
Union City – Elementary School grade level
Projects that address serious facility deficiencies:
Camden - Camden High School
Hoboken – Thomas G. Connors Elementary School
Orange – Cleveland Elementary School
Orange – Orange High School
Trenton – Trenton Central High School