Shades of Belmont, Los Angeles SD: New Jersey Plans to Build Schools Over Toxic Dumps
The Schools Construction Corp. has purchased at least 22 contaminated or possibly contaminated sites which will be "cleaned up" so that multimillion-dollar schools may be built on or near these properties. We want to know who will be accountable for the cleaning. Will SCC officials be sending their own children to these schools? Betsy Combier
New schools being built on contaminated sites
By JAMES W. PRADO ROBERTS and JASON METHOD, Asbury Park Press 02/20/05
New Jersey plans to build multimillion-dollar schools on or near what are now contaminated properties - including at one federal Superfund site with radioactive soil - as part of its $6 billion program to improve school buildings in the state's 31 poorest districts.
The Schools Construction Corp., which is overseeing the massive program in mostly urban areas, has purchased at least 22 contaminated or possibly contaminated sites, a review of state records shows.
SCC and state environmental officials say the sites will be cleaned, said a spokeswoman for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Commissioner Campbell said New Jersey changed its cleanup standards because of the new information.
In the fall, state environmental officials compiled a list of 55 contaminated properties, and 38 more properties possibly contaminated, which are under consideration to become schools. Four were rejected.
Seebode said the DEP has not estimated cleanup costs because they must be paid for by the SCC.
Lenny Siegel, director of the California-based Center for Environmental Oversight, a nonpartisan activist group, also reviewed state DEP records of several sites for Gannett New Jersey.
Siegel, who has taught site mitigation at UCLA, said the DEP has done well to test the soil at the Trenton site, recommend more study in New Brunswick and make plans to remove radiation in Gloucester City.
But he said if state officials are going to clean up the sites correctly, it will likely cost them more than they anticipate.
A $1 million cleanup estimate in Trenton, Siegel said, would "do some superficial removal."
He said the state should not make a final decision on a property that will become a school site until all the cost estimates are in.
"Too often people put the cart before the horse and say, "Here's how we're going to solve this problem,' and they don't know that," Siegel said.
As an example of how cleanup costs can escalate, Siegel pointed to the Belmont Learning Center, a Los Angeles high school. There, officials already have spent $175 million on a cleanup and plan to spend $111 million more. The site is nationally known as an example of how costs can escalate once remediation begins.
A California state investigation called it "a public works disaster of biblical proportions." The project is now on hold.
DEP Commissioner Campbell was an environmental adviser to President Clinton in the 1990s and familiarized himself with Los Angeles's school-building problems. Campbell said he designed New Jersey's program to avoid similar problems.
Critics: Money diverted
Environmentalists contend the state is diverting money intended for the new urban school buildings and are pouring it into expensive cleanups of contaminated properties.
Wolfe, the former DEP analyst who now is a consultant for a nonprofit state environmental group, said the school construction program may be a back-door attempt to fund environmental cleanup under the cover of a state Supreme Court order aimed at improving school buildings.
"Why are we diverting money that's supposed to go to the educationally neediest for environmental cleanup?" Wolfe said. "Why? Because we've done poor planning. Does this then become a big-ticket item to pay environmental consultants?"
DEP, SCC and local school officials, and McNeill, the former SCC head, insist that in dense urban districts, there are few large clean sites on which to build new schools without tearing down houses. The options are to knock down blocks of houses, or clean up old industrial property and put the schools there.
Cleanups are "a last resort, and it's expensive," said former SCC director McNeill, adding that he did reject some sites proposed by school districts. "There are some you'd never put a kid on."
McNeill said he believes some cities and school districts are willing to place schools on contaminated properties as a way to get the state to clean them up and keep other properties on their tax rolls.
"They figure it's not usable for much else, and they figure the state has the money," McNeill said.
Fewer contaminated sites might be chosen if the state were to let school districts, especially small ones, build on land outside of their community. "Maybe the answer is to put it in the next town over," he said.
Won't send grandaughter
Such an option was not considered in Gloucester City.
From the front window of her house in Gloucester City last week, Kim Garwood expressed reservations about whether the cleanup would be long term. She could see men in protective white suits walking around, getting ready to remove radioactive soil from the federal Superfund site across the street.
Before long, the site, which was contaminated when spent radioactive ore produced nearby was dumped there, will be transformed into a sports field for the new middle school. Other toxins, such as chromium and benzene from three other former industrial sites, also pollute parts of the future school property, according to state records.
So, Garwood says, when her 16-month-old granddaughter is old enough, she'll go to the local Catholic school instead.
"I feel sorry for them," Garwood said, referring to the children who will go to the public school.
Gloucester City, a 2-square-mile town south of Camden, where its Delaware River waterfront once teamed with good-paying manufacturing jobs, is suffering a long industrial hangover.
One business, the Welsbach Co., produced mantles for gas lanterns for almost 60 years until closing in 1940. The company refined radioactive thorium from monazite ore, then spread some of the waste ash around town, filling gullies and old stream beds, and may have offered it for use as fill by city residents.
The federal EPA, since then, has said thorium is a long-term cancer risk. In the 1990s, the Welsbach waste sites were added to the federal Superfund list. Since then, the EPA has removed radioactive soil from several residential properties, a public park and municipal swimming club.
In 2000, when the Gloucester City Board of Education sought to build a middle school, it chose one of the contaminated areas. The primary criteria was reducing the number of residents who would be displaced by the new school, Superintendent Mary T. Stansky said.
"We only agreed to it because we know it's going to be perfectly safe," Stansky said. "I think if we had a non-contaminated property, that is the choice. I have kids, too. That is certainly the best choice. But . . . you can't take eight acres of houses."
She said all the sites the district considered had some contamination. She said the district didn't consider placing a school facility in a nearby town that would require neither environmental remediation nor the razing of homes. The annual busing cost could be $200,000 to $300,000 a year, she said.
In Gloucester City, residents are accustomed to the byproducts of their former industry.
"When you live in Gloucester, no matter where you are, you can be pretty sure that there's something contaminated beneath you," said resident Helen Whitcraft, 37. "You just hope for the best."
New Jersey Schools Construction Corp. Begins Massive $8.6 Billion Construction Construction Program
By Mary Beth Sammons
The competition was unusually stiff.
More than 50 top architectural and construction firms from around the country were vying for a school renovation project in Elizabeth, N.J. The roster of heavy-hitting players included Turner Construction Co. of New Jersey and Bovis Lend Lease LMB Inc., based in New York City.
That's why Michael Mannetta, partner and director of design for the North Hills, N.J.-based Spector Group, considers landing the four-school renovation and addition project a home run, almost as challenging as the design and construction that came later.
And with construction just under way on the school rehab, Spector already is trying to win more school jobs.
Spector Group's four-school project is part of the largest state-funded school program in the history of New Jersey, and one of the largest of its kind in the country. The Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act of New Jersey mandated the massive construction undertaking on July 18, 2000, and resulted in a commitment to invest $12 billion in public school construction and renovation in New Jersey over the next decade.
The state is contributing $8.6 billion to create high-performance, state-of-the-art schools and job opportunities for hundreds of construction and architecture teams.
It's a project involving thousands of schools in more than 500 school districts, "with the potential to impact positively on the lives of millions of children and generations to come," said Alfred T. McNeil, chief executive officer of the New Jersey School Construction Corp.
The corporation that McNeil heads was formed last year as a subsidiary corporation of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to take full responsibility for the school construction project. McNeil, a 36-year construction veteran, one month into his retirement, was tapped by New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey to serve at the helm of the 150-person staff for the corporation.
McNeil handpicked a board of directors that includes representatives from state government and leaders in the business, education and construction fields. Specifically the authority's role is to oversee the building of school facilities; create greater efficiency in procurement and project management; increase district involvement in project planning; and oversee the creation of innovative design solutions.
A Unique Program
"What is so unique is that the state stepped in and created a massive program that would not only renovate the most needy schools in the state, but that would make sure that all schools would have the modern-day facilities needed to provide the best education for children," McNeil said. "The kids are at the heart of this program."
The magnitude of the work slated for the 10-year program has opened the floodgates for construction firms, contractors and architects from across the country to land work in New Jersey. Already, almost 200 construction firms, contractors and architects are actively involved in projects.
Under the act, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority has the job of constructing school facility projects in New Jersey's 30 special needs districts, known as the Abbott Districts, and in the remaining districts that receive more than 55 percent in state aid for education, McNeil said.
The Abbott Districts, which were awarded $6 billion of the construction dollars, are schools where "literally no or little repair work had been done on badly deteriorating buildings in 50 or 75 years," he added. "The state stepped in to mandate that this would be done." Most of the work for the last two years has centered on $600 million in health and safety renovations - installing new fire alarm systems, new roofs and other necessary projects that needed to be done immediately at more than 1,000 schools to make the buildings safe, said McNeil.
Now, the bulk of that repair work is complete, ninety-five new schools and school additions are on the schedule for 2003 and 159 more in 2004. Additionally, 100 new sites will be secured over the next two years for construction. Construction is targeted at about 150 schools each year through the next 10 years, McNeil said.
What makes this unique for contractors is that school construction projects are taken out of the hands of individual school districts and placed in the hands of the corporation, which is responsible for the procurement, contract administration, design, construction land acquisition and project services, he added.
By placing ownership of this work under the umbrella of the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp., the goal is to streamline school repair, renovation and repair. Already, by accelerating and overlapping activities, and reforming others, McNeil expects to reduce the time it takes to complete a construction project from 60 months to 40 months. In addition to increasing job opportunities for hundreds of contractors, subcontractors and consultants, the authority aims to maximize contracting opportunities for minorities and women.
"The enormity and scope of the work that needs to be done gives an opportunity for smaller, niche construction companies and contractors, along with women and minority-owned firms, to jump in and help in this project," said McNeil, who added that 19 percent of the firms involved are minority owned and 7 percent are women owned.
Change in Funding Formula
The most significant change in the law is the level of state aid for public school construction. In the past, school districts received state aid for construction debt at the same percentage as their state aid for operating costs. Under that formula, almost half of the state's school districts were ineligible for any construction aid.
The new law guarantees construction aid for every school district in New Jersey. The minimum level of aid is 40 percent, and Abbott districts will receive 100 percent of eligible costs.
"The largest challenge is that you are dealing with all the different interest groups - school administrators, parents, construction crews, you name it, and trying to get them to agree on what the school should be and where it should be located," McNeil said. "Someone has got to be there listening to their concerns and taking the heat. And that someone is me and the leaders of our corporation.
"We're no longer just building schools. We're building buildings that will have an impact on the entire community, open long after the school day ends."
Creativity on the Ground
Though just a small piece of the pie, the Spector Group's multischool renovation work speaks volumes about the uniqueness of this massive New Jersey educational undertaking.
"In the past, we would never have stood a chance of even getting an interview for a government project of this size and scope," Mannetta said. "It used to be that local school districts hear about you from the superintendent who knows your work from another project and then you interview with the school board. Now, there's so much work here they had to open it up to firms across the country. You're competing with 50 to 60 construction and architectural teams vying for the business."
Creativity and perseverance are the hallmarks of these school renovations and new construction. Mannetta's 18,000-sq.-ft. addition just under way at Halloran Elementary School in Elizabeth, N.J., is testimony to that.
After months of late-night planning sessions, dozens of architectural renderings and exhaustive brainstorming sessions, Mannetta said he turned to what seemed an unlikely source to help discover the solution to the design dilemma: the school custodian.
Indeed, it was an off-handed comment by a custodial worker at Halloran that shaped the design theme for a multipurpose building with two stories of classrooms, a glass lobby and cafetorium (cafeteria/auditorium). When completed, the construction will make room for a fourth athletic field on space where temporary classrooms had been housed.
"We did exhaustive site visits trying to figure out where we could squeeze in this addition and not have to get rid of the football, baseball and track fields," Mannetta said. "Athletic playing fields are scarce and so kids were being bused in from other schools to use them." One day I asked the custodian to unlock a door at the back of the school, and all of a sudden I realized there was a field there. The guy turned to me and said, 'Man, I hate that ugly field. There's no use for it.'"
The result: What once was the rear of the school will become the main entryway, with a two-story lobby to be housed on top of that "ugly field."
The addition will be linked to the existing structure by means of a transparent glass lobby, which will house an ADA elevator and second-story link to the existing building, while still maintaining the integrity of the original facade. The cafetorium will be will be similarly linked to the building by means of a lobby and bus drop-off site.
The Halloran School project is significant because it is one of the first legislated school projects to be mandated, and because it is at the base of the bridge from Staten Island it will be the showcase of the New Jersey school renovation projects as drivers from New York enter the state.
How the SCC Works and How to Get Involved
Here's how school construction decisions are being made in the Garden State. The New Jersey Department of Education and the Schools Construction Corporation are working in tandem on school facilities projects as follows:
Each district must prepare a long-range facilities plan that is reviewed and approved by the DOE.
The plans and project applications are reviewed for approval by the DOE to ensure that they are consistent with state facilities standards and are educationally adequate.
Once approved, the DOE approves a facilities project. The SCC then manages the project and the commissioner determines the project's final costs.
When the final costs are determined, the SCC begins construction of the facilities project.
Non-Abbott school districts that elect to receive a state grant for their facilities projects must submit the project to the DOE and the SCC. The SCC sends a grant agreement to these school districts, which must be executed and returned to the SCC.
The grant is distributed in stages during the design and construction phases of the projects.
Throughout the project the SCC continues to keep an open, ongoing dialogue with New Jersey's school districts concerning its school finance and construction program
Here's how construction firms and other contractors get involved:
Firms can either respond to an advertisement for bids or check out bid advertisements on the Web site, www.njscc.com. So far, betweeen 40 to 60 firms have bid for each project. The SCC solicits these proposals.
All consultants must be prequalified by SCC to submit responses to SCC requests for proposal. By clicking on the link, interested firms may view information on becoming prequalified.
To become a SCC contractor, a firm must have a current classification with the New Jersey Department of Treasury, Division of Property Management and Construction. Contractors having this classification are required to fill out the SCC Contractor Classification form, which, once received, is forwarded to the Office of Government Integrity for a "moral integrity" background check. All SCC classified contractors are subject to a "moral integrity" screening before classification may occur.
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