Thursday, January 23, 2014

No time for cheers

The Trentonian is reporting this morning that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his newly appointed executive director of the Schools Development Authority, Charles McKenna, have promised Assemblyman Reed Gusciora that Trenton will get a new high school.

This is just the latest in a long series of promises and hoped for starts on remedying a situation where students and staff are forced to endure conditions that in any other district would not be tolerated.
The situation with the 82 year old high school is not new. It has been punted back and forth for over a decade pitting the state against that school board against the preservationists against the state and so on.

Everyone wants to point the finger and no one wants to accept any blame. That has to stop. Now.
Let’s start at the very beginning: the Trenton school district let the building deteriorate.  Undoubtedly, defenders of our board of education will say it was a money problem, but let’s be real. It is a management problem.

Yes, it is an older building and proper repairs and upkeep cost more than temporary, slap-dash fixes. So budget and plan. Trenton’s funding for its infrastructure (like that of the county and the state) is woefully inadequate. We have no problem pumping up salaries for administrators and the like but we won’t invest in maintaining and improving what we have.
When the courts determined that New Jersey was required to allocate some $8 billion for fixing up the dilapidated schools in the state’s poorest districts, it got everybody excited.  With all of the money in play, could scandal be far behind?

After only five years in existence, the Schools Construction Corporation created to oversee the investment in school improvements was abolished in 2007 by then Governor Corzine. Audits showed that hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted in the gold rush to get new schools built. The SDA was formed to “put an end to the wasteand mismanagement of the past”, Corzine was quoted as saying in August of 2007.
The reorganization of the funding and management authority meant all projects would be reevaluated. This put the Trenton Central High School plans back into play and set the stage for more delays.

Alumni and preservationists felt, and we believe rightly so, that a properly managed restoration and updating of the existing school would actually be less expensive than totally new construction. Princeton’s high school, the same vintage and similar design as Trenton’s, had undergone just such a renovation and no one complained about their building as being inadequate.
There is an unfortunate bias that “new” is better and will solve our problems.  It is an attitude that is a holdover from the first couple of centuries of this country, when resources were seemingly unlimited and we could just expand and build a new whenever and wherever we wanted.

A new school building, made of concrete block and drywall instead of brick and plaster is not going improve test scores and raise graduation rates.
That was the popular position and one that the SDA (and its predecessor, the SCC) played to. Building new was cheaper, they said.

And so it went, back and forth; Build New! Restore and Renovate!
The ineffective, mayor appointed school boards and school administrators (with a few exceptions) collectively fell in with the community cry for all new construction. The preservationists made enough noise to give the SDA political cover for its own inadequacies, indecision and political posturing.

Nothing got done.  Conditions in the building worsened.
In the run up to last November’s gubernatorial election, a lot of attention was given to the school. It became just another pawn in the political chess game. Media tours, protests, candidate visits and the incumbent’s reported refusal to tour the building were reported and remarked upon constantly.

Now that Governor Christie is ensconced in his second and final term, and regardless of his aspirations and success in moving to the White House in 2016, he’s promising “a new school.”
We continue to hope that the plans call for mostly renovating and restoring the existing structure, but we realize that is unlikely at this point. It’s a shame.

What is a bigger shame is that it has taken this long to get something done (if, indeed, the promise comes to fruition).
There should be no self-congratulations; no high-fives; no cheers.

The powers that be (and were) created this mess. They prolonged the agony and contributed to the destruction of a once beautiful and quite serviceable school building.
Instead of demonstrating the value and worth of taking care of the things we have, the school district, the board of education, the elected leaders at all levels let us down. They morphed maintenance and management issues into political posturing. They all said “It’s for the children” and for more than a decade, an entire generation of students has gone without.

There is no cause for celebration and no reason for further blame shifting.
Just sit down and get to work.

“It’s for the children.”

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