What’s $12 Billion Among Friends? Or, How the SDA Wasted Your Tax Money.

Last week I wrote about how the practice of nepotism at the Schools Development Authority under the “leadership” of former CEO Lizette Polanco-Delgado matched the nepotism at the Department of Education under former Commissioner Lamont Repollet, both of whom were appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy. Yet there’s more to this story than inappropriate hiring of relatives, friends, and frat brothers.

There’s the utter waste of your tax dollars.

While we can’t quantify (at least through public reporting) the costs of throwing out PARCC tests to satisfy Murphy’s promise to NJEA to recreate similar tests (I’ve been told this will cost millions of dollars) or the costs of funding a Charter School Act Review that has yielded no results (at least any that will be shared with the public), we can quantify the amount of money wasted by the SDA, which is responsible for funding renovations and new buildings in New Jersey’s 31 poorest school districts; non-Abbott districts historically got up to 40% of their facilities costs back. 

Of course now no one gets anything because the SDA has burnt through its budget of $12 billion and its pockets are empty.

How did this happen?

Simple: We spend too much on school buildings, mostly on labor costs and overruns. A few examples, all of Abbott districts.

  • In Newark the SDA spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars to build schools for only 3,733 Newark children — an average of more than $70,000 per student. According to Tapinto, “the last three schools to open in Newark since 2016 — South Street School, Oliver Street School and Elliot Street School — cost an average of $515 per square foot. South Street, which was completed in 2018, cost $69 million or $669 per square foot, nearly 5 times the limits set by the Legislature.”
  • Last year the SDA approved its largest single construction yet: “a new high school for Perth Amboy whose cost is estimated at between $210 million and $230 million. The three-story building is to provide 576,000 square feet for about 2,800 students.”
  • In Long Branch, the high school was ready for a $4.3 million renovation to prepare for predicted increases in enrollment . Once the SDA stepped in, the costs ballooned to $6.9 million, partly because the board of education decided to create a  new high school academy, The School of Social Justice. But guess what? Enrollment has not increased, which was the original premise for the expansion. (And it seems to me the board ought to be more concerned with the fact that only one out of four third-graders can read at grade level, a critical benchmark for future academic success, and only 15% of 10th-graders meet or exceed expectations in Algebra 1.)

Last year Paymon Rouhanifard, former superintendent of Camden, tweeted out his dismay at the exorbitant SDA costs, especially compared to public charters that, according to NJ’s charter school law, get no facilities aid yet manage to build solid buildings at far less expense. 

New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation. There are lots of reasons for this— we’re a wealthy state for starters, plus we have a crazily inefficient municipal and school district infrastructure replete with redundancies.

But another reason is the state’s utter failure, especially under the Murphy Administration, to hold agencies like the SDA and DOE accountable to taxpayers.

This is a problem with a remedy. Now if only our leaders had the political will.

What do you think?

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