SDA LETS CAMDEN AUTHORITY USE SHOVEL-READY SCHOOL SITE FOR HOSPITAL PROJECT
ELC Requests Attorney General, State Comptroller Conduct Full Investigation
October 12, 2011
Education Law Center (ELC) has filed a formal request with the Attorney General's Office of Fiscal Integrity in School Construction and the State Comptroller to investigate a November 2010 agreement between the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA) and the Camden County Improvement Authority (CCIA) to permit CCIA to use land designated for the new Lanning Square elementary school as a "staging area" for a Cooper Hospital expansion project adjacent to the site.
The parcels leased by SDA are part of a larger site designated for construction of a new school to serve 600 Pre-K to Grade 8 students from the Lanning Square neighborhood in Camden. The students were displaced in 2004, when the Camden district had to close the former Lanning Square Elementary School due to structural and other conditions that threatened students' safety and health. The Lanning Square students were sent to two other schools – Broadway and Fetters – until the new Lanning Square School could be built by SDA.
The new Lanning Square School project has received approval from the NJ Department of Education (DOE). Between 2006 and 2009, the SDA spent over $10 million for demolition, site remediation, architectural designs and other steps to advance the project to "shovel-ready" status. The project came to a halt in January 2010, when Governor Chris Christie ordered SDA to put all pending school construction projects on indefinite hold.
Without any notice to the Lanning Square students, parents and residents, or even the Camden school district, the SDA executed a "use and occupancy" agreement, dated November 17, 2010, to let CCIA use the Lanning property for a fee of $2500 per month. There is also no record that the SDA obtained approval of the deal from the agency's Board, and the SDA has not released any information to the public about the transaction. ELC obtained a copy of the agreement through the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
"We're stunned that the SDA would let the Improvement Authority use the site for our new neighborhood school without even letting our community know," said Keith Stewart, President of the Lanning Square Residents Association. "We were promised a new school eight years ago. The site should have construction equipment for our new school, not for Cooper Hospital. The SDA is supposed to build new schools not hospitals.”
"It's hard to believe SDA would hold up construction of the new Lanning Square School when, every day, Lanning children are sent to other obsolete schools elsewhere in the city," said R. Mangaliso Davis, spokesperson for Friends of Lanning Square School, a newly formed group of retired educators, teachers and others supporting the Lanning Square project. "We need the new school built now so our children can return home to a safe, proper place to learn and grow."
ELC is asking for a full and complete investigation of the SDA decision to lease the Lanning Square School property, including disclosure of all the parties involved, how the terms of the agreement were arrived at, and the process by which the SDA reached the agreement to let the property be used for purposes unrelated to the agency’s statutory mission – financing and constructing needed school facilities. ELC is also asking for a full audit of the agreement, including an accounting of SDA staff, attorneys, consultants and contractors used to facilitate the transaction.
In 2008, the SDA estimated the cost of constructing the Lanning Square School to be $32 million. Funding for the project was approved by the Legislature in 2009, as part of a $2.9 billion financing package to complete 52 urgently needed new school projects in the state’s poorest communities. To date, SDA has not started any of these projects, nor spent any of the authorized funding.
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