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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

  1. ferdek
    May 23rd, 2008 at 10:54 | #1

    Billions wasted-No criminal investigations-No one lost their jobs. Before concluding that all is well at SDC where’s any attempt to recover lost dollars, punish mismanagement/fraud and prosecute. The arrogance of power at the SCC has managed to be reborn at the SDC and not by accident. Good luck trying to get a direct answer to your questions. Build it and we will pay for it and pay for it and pay for it. That’s the Jersey Way! The burden of proof should always be on those who claim that they are efficient and accountable. Open the Books!
    If it exists tax it/sell it/lease it/condemn it. Your choice as long as it raises revenues.

  2. JerseyOpine
    May 23rd, 2008 at 12:28 | #2

    Did the state government really think that by changing name from the SCC to the SDA we taxpayers would think it was a resurrected model of efficient management? This makes me worry – are they that stupid, or do they just think we are?
    The questions posed are excellent, & just the beginning. Voters have been clamoring for criminal investigations, & recovery of misused funds. Until that happens don’t expect me to approve throwing good money after bad!
    I think your question, “Why can’t the basic problems be solved before sophisticated new policy initiatives are embraced?” has universal applications!

  3. nohesitation
    May 23rd, 2008 at 12:32 | #3

    Yes ferdek –
    But does anyone else find it obscene that after blowing through $8 billion (that was supposed top go to schools for poor black kids) like drunken sailors, that the Corzine folks now view this pot of school construction money as leverage for economic development and all sorts of financial speculation (air rights, et al)?
    How could folks miss this major shift in the program?

  4. ferdek
    May 23rd, 2008 at 13:39 | #4

    nohesitation-an average educated working person in NJ without any major health or economic problems has discretionary time to allocate to the family & friends, job related duties, civic involvement and of course R&R. When you start adding in little stresses like taxes, inflation, War, religion, etc you now are down to much less time to focus on the myriad shenanigans, schemes, fugazis and gambits of federal, state and municipal officials. So what’s my point? The power people rely on these facts plus a good dose of their own obfuscation/delay/secrecy/cover-ups and just general BS to keep us in the dark and covered with manure like mushrooms. Just think Encap, SCC as the most recent scams. Due diligence is time consuming requires expertise and access to records and not just through OPRA. The pols and their hired guns have incentives to reveal only what is minimally required under law and even then they complain about intrusive citizens and the plaintiffs bar. The engine of the state can be creative and supportive of democracy but it can also be punitive and repugnant to our sense of justice. The current Trenton crowd is knee deep in mendacity and sinking farther with every new revelation of misconducts in office.

  5. unprovincial
    May 23rd, 2008 at 23:12 | #5

    With $8 Billion already spent with little to show for it, you would think that the Division of Law and all the hired guns that Corzine has brought on staff would be looking to recoup some of that money before any other “solutions” to New Jersey’s debt problems. It wouldn’t be hard to find padded invoices and charges for things unrelated to the construction of schools. It would be worth the investment of their time………….heck, we already paid for the audit. But of course, that might reveal where the money really went and upset some of the recipients.

  6. ferdek
    May 24th, 2008 at 10:00 | #6

    the SCC is NJ’s own Iraq in terms of the lack of accountability for billions spent. And the pedagogical underpinning for these expenditures is our own version of WMD. How do we get out of the Abbott abyss before another court ordered mandate to throw money at societal/urban problems masquerading as “thorough and efficient” deficiencies? Calling out the NJ Supreme Court!

  1. September 18th, 2009 at 10:27 | #1
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  3. August 16th, 2019 at 13:53 | #3
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