You wouldn’t think my life as a Newark dad would have anything to do with a massive state agency with a multi-billion dollar budget.
But if you’re a Newark parent like me—or a parent in any low-income district known as an “Abbott”—you may be in the same predicament, finding that a faceless, bullying bureaucracy is interfering with your children’s opportunity for a top-notch public education.
Here’s what’s happening: the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, or SDA, is run by the state in order to fund and manage facilities projects in NJ’s 31 Abbott/SDA districts like Newark. But the SDA is scamming people, playing favorites, and doing the bidding of certain people in high places.
People like Newark Superintendent Roger Leon.
Example: Philips Academy Charter School in Newark’s Central Ward, where my daughter happens to go to school, just got approved for an expansion and needs a new building to house middle school grades. Against all odds, there sits the perfect opportunity for expansion, the now-empty University Heights Charter School, right down Central Avenue.
Sometimes the stars align.
Except when SDA gets in the way by conspiring with Newark Superintendent Roger Leon to cheat New Jersey taxpayers out of a valuable facility.
Philips Academy saw this golden opportunity and decided to make an offer on the University Heights building; unlike other Newark public schools, charter schools are on their own with facilities funding and it’s not every day that such a perfect fit emerges right down the block. The brokers for the building accepted the offer and a closing date was set, making the deal a win for the students, their families, and New Jersey taxpayers, who will benefit from the revenue reaped from the sale of the $13 million building.
Yet Philips was bamboozled by SDA. Instead of going forward with the sale, SDA started playing games, issuing vague threats of eminent domain (here’s why that won’t work) in which the state seizes private property. SDA hasn’t ever followed through on these threats—probably because it’s illegal unless the facility is in terrible condition—but the threat is enough to scare off potential buyers, just like a bully going after a schoolkid.
But that’s exactly what Leon wants.
What does he get in return for SDA’s playing thug?
SDA will sell him the building for one dollar. That’s right, one hundred pennies instead of the $13 million or the state would have realized from a legitimate sale.
This scandal is personal. My daughter goes to Philips Academy. When I drop her off and need to go into the school building, I’ll park right by University Heights–that’s how perfect a fit it is for expansion. Yet now the building will go into Leon’s bulging real estate portfolio—which Newark doesn’t need, by the way—just to keep public charters off his turf. The government fiddles while my daughter and her peers are left without a school building.
As an activist and a parent it is difficult to advocate for my daughter and other children and not involve the administrators of the school in my fight. I chose not to speak with the school leaders before writing this blog. I pray that they can find a path to success but for me something’s not right here.
I know how real estate works and, believe me, you’d never get away with this in the private sector. But ethical rules are made to be broken when SDA and Leon play their games. The only losers are families like yours and mine.