School Construction: A $6 Billion “Executive Game”

6 billion dollars.

That’s right. Billion. Not a misprint.

That is the amount that was estimated not too long ago as the cost of repairing and rebuilding New Jersey’s crumbling schools across the state.

Last week, state education officials revised that figure. The cost of completing more than 300 school building and renovation projects might cost 12.8 billion, maybe more.

How much money is 12.8 billion dollars? Well, if every person on the planet coughed up $2 a piece, it would not be enough to cover the bill.

In 2002, Governor McGreevey created the Schools Construction Corp., an agency that was supposed to oversee the massive statewide repairs to school buildings and new construction in poorer districts that were mandated by the state supreme court. Seems the court had a problem with children’s ability to achieve a thorough and efficient education in buildings that put them in actual danger. At that time, the state of New Jersey borrowed $8.6 billion to finance the improvements. Approximately 75 schools were built in poorer districts, and 59 other projects were approved. Currently, 96 projects are in the initial design phase, and officials are asking that those be given priority as $300 million has already been spent on them.

The original budget for the school construction program did not account for the costs of buying land (VERY expensive in New Jersey), cleanup of polluted sites, or the temporary classrooms while students waited for the new school to be built. A more thorough investigation of the agency last year found extreme mismanagement, conflicts of interest with builders and owners, and lax oversight. The current governor, Jon Corzine, now has to decide if the School Construction Corp will be dismantled, and how the court order will be complied with. He is currently facing a $5 billion budget shortfall in the overall state budget. This is in a state where property taxes are among the highest in the nation.

For those who eagerly await the 6th season of the TV show, The Sopranos, consider this: Mafia boss Tony Soprano is in the wrong business. “Waste management” in New Jersey has less to do with hauling trash than with siphoning public money. Tony ought to pursue school construction at the expense of the taxpayers. Now there’s a true “executive game”.

Meanwhile, New Jersey students are trying to get an education in crumbling, dangerous schools. Billions of dollars have already been spent. Billions more are needed. And the waste, corruption, shame and inequality goes on and on.