PARSIPPANY — Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-26) demanded the Legislature take action on her bill to abolish the School Development Authority (SDA) and place school construction responsibilities under the Department of Treasury, after the state was forced this week to fire 30 SDA employees whose hiring violated state ethics guidelines
A-5330, introduced by the Assemblywoman after the SDA staffing scandal broke in April, will transfer all school construction responsibilities now handled by the troubled agency to the Division of Property Management and Construction in the Department of Treasury. Assemblywoman DeCroce noted that her legislation will provide the Governor and Legislature more direct authority to control school construction activities, while allowing the state Economic Development Authority (EDA) to retain its responsibility for the financing of school construction projects.
“The SDA has had a long and troubled history, largely because it has been able to operate with little oversight as a legally-establish state authority. The staffing scandal is just the latest problem demonstrating that we need to abolish the agency and bring its operations within the state administration, where the Governor and Legislature can have more direct control of matters,” said Assemblywoman DeCroce, whose district spans Morris, Essex and Passaic counties.
The firing of 30 people earlier this week followed the release of three investigative reports on a staffing scandal that forced the resignation of SDA CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco, who stepped down in April after only eight months in office.
Whistle-blowers reported that long-time employees had been fired during her tenure as friends and family to Delgado-Polanco were given highly paid positions for which they were unqualified. Three state probes were launched, with one concluding: “Nearly every new hire was directly or indirectly connected personally or professionally to Ms. Delgado Polanco when hired.” That same investigation report went on to add: “Connected new hires benefitted from favorable treatment regarding their titles and/or salaries.”
Of the 30 people fired from the agency earlier this week, 27 had been hired by the former CEO. The investigations also concluded that 14 of those hired under the former CEO were brought on at salaries toppling six figures, with some reaching as high as $170,000. At least 10 of those top earners either worked with Delgado-Polanco in the past or had close ties to her.
The SDA, which manages the construction and improvement of schools in 31 of the state’s poorest communities, has billions of dollars at its disposal. But it was reported in April to be nearly out of money.
“We still haven’t a satisfactory explanation on how this agency burned through billions of dollars of taxpayer money. We need accountability and oversight,” said Assemblywoman DeCroce.
Newark Cost Overruns
In a recent report by an online news organization, school construction costs in Newark were found to be outrageously high. The TapInto Newark report said, “The SDA spent an average $424 per square foot to build the five schools in Newark, nearly three times the limit set by the Legislature at $142 per square foot, which is supposed to include construction and professional fees.”
The Newark report also noted, “The last three schools to open in Newark since 2016 cost an average of $515 per square foot. The South Street School, which was completed in 2018, cost $69 million or $669 per square foot, nearly 5 times the limits set by the Legislature. 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.”
In May DeCroce sent letters requesting support from Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Speaker Craig Coughlin and Assemblyman John Burzichelli to bring SDA under direct state control.
“Moving the SDA to the Division of Property Management & Construction is the right step because it is critical that we ensure the services provided by the SDA are offered in a professional, cost effective and transparent manner,” wrote DeCroce.
The Division of Property Management and Construction in the Department of Treasury oversees the procurement of construction contracts for public works buildings for state agencies, leases for office and warehouse space, and the operation and maintenance of state-owned facilities.