Gov. Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey last week signed an executive order designed to get the state’s problem-plagued School Construction Corp. back on track.
The corporation was created in 2002 as a public agency to oversee projects mandated as part of the state’s Abbott v. Burke school finance case. Reports last year of mismanagement and wasteful spending in the $8.6 billion program were followed by an announcement in July that the SCC was delaying dozens of construction projects because funds had dried up. (“N.J. Facility Fund Dries Up, Scores of Plans on Hold,” Aug. 10, 2005.)
Enough is enough, the new Democratic governor said last week as he announced one of his first major policy initiatives since being sworn in Jan. 17.
His executive order, signed Feb. 7, appoints six new members to the construction corporation’s board, creates the post of special counsel for oversight of the organization, and calls for a working group led by state officials to conduct a “far-reaching” review of the program and to recommend a “full reorganization” of the SCC.
The work is on a fast track, with the first list of recommendations due to the governor by March 15. “This executive order reflects my commitment for reform of the School Construction Program,” Gov. Corzine said in a statement.
The order drew cautious optimism from the Newark, N.J.-based advocacy group that has represented the plaintiffs in the long-running Abbott case.
“It looks good on paper, but it remains to be seen if it will be enough to make the changes we need,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center. He said real improvement would only come with major changes in the corporation’s personnel, leadership, and structure.
“The governor will have to stay on top of it in a very intense way,” he said. “It’s going to be a very difficult job.”
The governor’s executive order names Barry Zubrow, a former chief administrative officer for New York City-based Goldman, Sachs & Co., as the new chairman of the School Construction Corp.’s 12-member board of directors.
The new post of special counsel in charge of oversight will be filled by Scott Weiner, a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
In an interview last week, Mr. Zubrow underscored the challenges that lie ahead if the organization is to be reformed, specifying the need to make long-term fixes in administration while setting priorities for the projects that the corporation should pursue.
“I think the question of getting additional money for building schools is going to be dependent on the ability to demonstrate an obvious need for additional facilities,” he said.
More important, he added, will be showing that the Corzine administration, through the state education department and the corporation, “can deliver schools in an efficient and effective manner.”
The executive order also directs the state attorney general’s office to assist the SCC in conducting “an immediate and full review” of all of its contracts and projects, and to promptly commence legal proceedings to recover state funds disbursed due to design errors, overcharging, and other circumstances where the construction corporation has the right to recover its money.
Kevin McElroy, the spokesman for the SCC, said that while 69 school construction projects are under way and 59 are on tap to begin, dozens more remain on hold pending new funding.
He added that the corporation, which has some 230 full-time employees, is cooperating with the various mandates in the executive order.
“I think this is a positive thing and will certainly put the school construction program back on track for the benefit of the students of New Jersey,” he said. “Really, that’s the bottom line.”