SDA chief says she can’t talk hiring and firings with lawmakers
TRENTON — Questionable hiring and firing patterns at the Schools Development Authority that are being reviewed by agency lawyers and state prosecutors were also a focus of discussion Wednesday as state lawmakers examined the Murphy administration’s proposed education budget.
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, D-Union, said many of the agency’s 41 workers hired since August appear to have clear connections to chief executive officer Lizette Delgado-Polanco as family, friends or former union colleagues. She said many are making six-figure salaries despite not having the qualifications listed in the job description.
“We’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t sure nepotism, but why were certain people hired who clearly weren’t prepared for the SDA positions?” Munoz asked.
Delgado-Polanco wouldn’t answer the question – just like she wouldn’t discuss layoffs, the union connections of people she hired and the raise and promotion given to an employee who accidentally distributed personal identifying information about employees to others on the SDA staff.
“I can’t answer that because that is under review by counsel,” Delgado-Polanco said.
“So there’s a lot of things under review by counsel,” Munoz said.
“That is correct,” Delgado-Polanco said.
The SDA faces these questions at a time when it’s running out of money, having spent or committed nearly all of the $12.3 billion borrowed since the inception of the state’s school construction program. Payments on the debt now approach $1.1 billion a year.
The SDA only has $60 million uncommitted that it can use for emergency repairs, as directed by the Department of Education.
Delgado-Polanco has toured 24 of the 31 lower-income districts in which the SDA is required by the courts to build and renovate school facilities, and she is also touring some regular districts, as part of putting together a capital plan for the next round of construction, which would have to be approved by lawmakers. She says it will be “a significant number” and should be proposed by June.
“New Jersey students can’t receive a 21st century education in 19th century facilities,” she said, saying funding will be needed “to ensure that every school child in the state of New Jersey receives an equitable education in a state-of-the-art school facility. This is their right. This is their civil right.”
Lawmakers say they’re waiting on a plan from Gov. Phil Murphy – and for resolution of the questions swirling around the agency.
“The sooner all the investigations are over and whatever the findings are come out, we’re all going to benefit from that because then you may be able to really get your job done. But until that’s over, I don’t think we can,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones, D-Camden.
Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, said there’s been talk about phasing out the Schools Development Authority and having the court-ordered construction managed differently.
He noted that the SDA has added staff, as part of an 11% budget increase, while the number of school facilities projects under active management is declining – from 57 in 2017 to 53 in 2018 to 43 this year.
“So a person would look at this and say in the previous structure, more was done with less, and now less is being done with more,” Burzichelli said.
The SDA’s vice president of construction operations, Manuel DaSilva, said that because different projects are in different stages of development, such numerical comparisons don’t accurately reflect workloads.