The school officials and students said that the roof leaks, half the bathrooms are closed because they are no longer functional, the auditorium is closed because of loose asbestos, and that the drinking water from the fountains is contaminated by lead from the pipes. Basically, the school is a health hazard, and it provides a poor environment for learning. At the very least, kids are sent a message by being put into that facility and it is this. "The building is a piece of garbage, so we must be garbage too. Suburban kids get decent schools, but the let us sit in this thing. Why bother trying."Yet when the School Development Authority (SDA) chose its 10 construction projects, Trenton High was left off the list. Today’s Star-Ledger recaps the Assembly Education Committee’s interrogation of SDA Chief Mark Larkins, who provided no documentation for the decision-making process that led to the choice of winning districts. Total tab for the construction of ten schools is estimated at $584 million, a fraction of $5.7 billion spend so far to build and/or renovate 61 schools.
School construction is expensive. In New Jersey the process may be more burdensome due to the infiltration of both profligacy and politics into such mundane items as drywall and phone systems. A recent profile (also from the Star-Ledger) on the 386-student International High School in Paterson, newly constructed by SDA, illustrates the problem:
Yet its new 113,000-square-foot facility, built by the state for $53 million, features an expansive wing for music classes. There are four permanently locked, darkened practice rooms with acoustic walls. There’s a large choral music room, now used only for in-school suspensions. There’s a second big, empty music room, where caged shelves built to store instruments are instead stuffed with extra school uniforms. And there’s an almost-empty office.The public school system in Paterson, with a total operating annual budget of about $421 million for its 20,000 kids, has been under the aegis of the state since 1991. A decade of state control seems to have had little impact on corruption, particularly in the arena of school construction. In 2004 Paterson misspent $50 million for construction costs and in 2005 a maintenance supervisor pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for forgoing construction inspections.
“It would be for the instructor, if we had one,” said the school’s principal, Robina Puryear-Castro, who arrived after the building was designed. “Right now, we have a piano in there, because we have a teacher who enjoys playing the piano.”
How do the kids do? Student performance is grim, though not so bad at International School: 68.7% of students can pass the High School Proficiency Assessment; 44% fail the language arts portion and 64.6% fail the math portion.
How about that suite of music rooms in the ritzy new digs? Any aspiring Toscaninis? Hard to say, though the school doesn’t offer any A.P. music classes; in fact, the only A.P. class available is English Composition, and not one of the 7 takers got a 3 or higher on the exam.
Meanwhile the 1,726 kids at Trenton Central High (where only 39% fail the language arts portion of the HSPA but 71.5% fail the math portion) while away the hours in the ruins of a building unfit for learning. What if that $53 million spent on International High had been spent refurbishing Trenton Central? The students and teachers there probably would be thrilled to trade in a new music wing for lead-free water fountains.