Calling Out Scott Weiner on school reforms
[Update: most recent - Bergen Record Editorial: Soiled again
Let me preface this post with two brief points of perspective. First, I strongly support additional funding for school construction and operations in Abbott school districts. Second, I worked for Scott Weiner when he was Commissioner of DEPE and have great respect for his intelligence, accomplishments, and commitment to public service.
It is with that perspective in mind that I throw down this challenge to Weiner, one he invited by calling out critics of NJ's schools construction program.
According to yesterday's Star Ledger article, Weiner not only went on offense, he expanded the policy purposes of the schools program to reflect a new development orientation:
Lawmakers ask extra $2.5B for school construction
"Weiner said the authority is also working on plans to generate additional funding for schools by incorporating them into broader development projects or by selling development rights atop new school buildings.
Weiner insisted the revamped Schools Development Authority has eliminated the management problems that hampered the early years of the program, and called on superintendents to challenge critics who imply the program is still mismanaged.
"We need to be able to call them out on it and say that's simply not true," he said. [end quote].
I will respond to that challenge and ask that you post here (or otherwise make publicly available) responses to these two simple questions:
First question: Inspector General Cooper’s April 21, 2005 Report to former Governor Codey found that $330 million had been spent on sites “patently unsuitable” for schools -perhaps the poster child for these findings are the purchase of a Superfund site in Gloucester City and former Manhattan project site in Union City. Cooper’s Report also found (quoting findings) (full Report here: http://www.state.nj.us/oig/pdf/njscc_preliminary_report.pdf
1) SCC purchased lands that are patently unsuitable for schools or that pose excessive acquisition costs. Sites targeted for school construction have been found to be environmentally contaminated, requiring substantial additional expenditures for cleanup and remediation;
2) SCC has minimal guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable site for a school and generally accedes to the site submitted by local school authorities. To date, the SCC has committed to or paid approximately $328.8 million for the acquisition of sites or associated costs;
3) SCC has no mechanism to assure that he Board is provided with a complete profile of candidate sites or with information on potential alternate sites;
4) [these flaws] hamper SCC’s ability to bring proper due diligence to land acquisition.
So my question is: I understand that you have revoked the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with DEP regarding environmental review of school sites (per your comment in the Bergen Record story on the Union City Manhattan Project site). But what process has replaced that DEP MOU? What standards and safeguards have been put in place to guarantee that the community is involved in school siting decisions; that schools are not sited on contaminated land unless it is demonstrated that there are no clean alternatives; that complete cleanups take place (permanent remedy, unrestricted use) at any contaminated site that is selected; and that we stop wasting lots of money on avoidable cleanup costs due to bad siting decisions and otherwise stop needlessly putting our children at risk?
What specifically has SDA done to set enforceable standards and policies to prevent recurrence of these problems?
For additional details, see also:
NEW JERSEY SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION REFORM GETS FAILING MARKS — No Environmental Reviews Prior to Building More Schools on Toxic Sites
NEW JERSEY LEAVES DOOR OPEN FOR MORE SCHOOLS ON TOXIC SITES — Governor’s “Working Group” Dodges Question of Acquiring Toxic Land for Schools
RADIOACTIVE SCHOOL SITE IS TIP OF NEW JERSEY TOXIC ICEBERG — Over 100 School Site approvals expedited under Secret Deal
Second question: You stated that
“the authority is also working on plans to generate additional funding for schools by incorporating them into broader development projects or by selling development rights atop new school buildings”
Why is everything considered a development, finance, or moneymaking operation?
Why can’t the basic problems be solved before sophisticated new policy initiatives are embraced? Has this Administration learned nothing from the “asset monetization” fiasco?
Looking forward to your reply. Governor Corzine has not responded to my letters, See:http://www.peer.org/docs/nj/06_24_4_corzineltr.pdf