Securing New Jersey Schools with Grant Money

On Oct. 31, 2002, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the stomach by another 15-year-old at Lincoln High School in Jersey City, N.J. The next day, another student was attacked blocks from campus. The incidents caused a community outcry, prompting calls for heightened security. The Jersey City Board of Education was aware of the risks and had just completed a three-year security construction project for their schools.

Joanne Kenny, associate school superintendent, said one the Jersey City school district’s top priorities was to make every building safe and secure. One measure was upgrading security for younger students, and, several weeks after the shootings, Sal Electric Co. of Jersey City had finished a $1.8 million contract to install computer- controlled electronic doors at five of the district’s elementary schools.

“We know that magnetic doors are not going to cure violence that comes in from the street,” said Kenny, “but whatever we can do to help the situation, that’s what we will do. We have magnetic doors in all the high schools and now we are extending them to the elementary schools.”

For Sal Electric, replacing exterior doors, putting in exit devices (electronic push bars) and latching (nonelectric) push bars on interior doors, involved coordination and cooperation with several school entities. They had to work under heightened security and with increased safety measures and complete the job quickly at sites with a resident, working population.

The repair project at the five elementary schools was part of a court-ordered, statewide school-construction program. In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in Abbott v. Burke that the state must pay 100 percent of renovation costs and new construction for 30 special-needs school districts, now known as “Abbott districts.”

The Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act, passed in 2000, mandated that $6 billion in funding be provided for projects in Abbott districts. Another $2.6 billion was allotted to fund projects in all other New Jersey school districts. The state Economic Development Authority (EDA), in charge of this program for the first two years, focused on completing repair projects in 400 Abbott-district schools. In October 2002, an executive order created an EDA subsidiary, the Schools Construction Corporation (SCC), to accelerate and streamline school construction.

Sal Electric Company worked with the school district, the EDA and the SCC. They coordinated with subcontractors, architects, personnel from the five schools and the URS Corp., a construction-management firm the EDA hired. The first step was winning the public bid.

“We based our price on the plans and the specifications, nothing more, nothing less,” said Philip Chianetta.

URS was the contractor’s prime contact, said John Schnitzer, of the architectural firm Rivardo Schnitzer Capazzi.

“URS managed the project, coordinated the construction,” said Schnitzer “It is something we usually do but the way the EDA engineered the project, they wanted somebody to oversee the project all day long, five days a week, and ordinarily you don’t have an architect doing that continual site observation but the EDA wanted 100-percent monitoring.”

URS viewed themselves as organizers, said Paul A. Holmes, a company vice president.

“One of the main tricks,” he said, “was keeping on top of communicating with all the parties, recognizing that we’re all a team and are all necessary to get it done. Our job was to orchestrate the movements of the team.”

That mission included creating a secure and safe environment for everyone. Students were the primary concern.

“We have to be very aware of the safety issues, more aware than any other type of project,” said Holmes, “because everything out there is a potential hazard to students and teachers and, to that end, we have a safety inspector going around daily.”

Construction crews were carefully monitored, and Philip Chianetta said the state had every angle covered.

“The EDA requires photo IDs and daily logs listing crews. It’s all in the specs. So we had to allocate a certain amount in the bid to cover that.”

To streamline those procedures, Chianetta created a system for making photo IDs and a daily checklist for use by the foreman and the construction manager for noting employees working, their work times and the weather. Sal Electric’s security system listed every employee’s Social Security number, address and other vital information.

“If a problem arose,” Chianetta said, “I’d have to turn the information over to the authorities.”

Another factor was time. Sal Electric got the contract in May, started at the end of June and completed in mid-October.

“As soon as school started we had to work at night,” said Chianetta “I had 45 guys but I never had two crews. To do that amount of work in a short time creates stress.”

The pressure complicated the job and caused a lot of headaches, said Charlie Lombardi, director of Buildings and Grounds, Jersey City Public Schools.

“For work in schools, we try to do it in harmony with the educational facility to make sure there is no noise during the day because our primary duty here is to educate kids,” he said. “Doing work in the evenings, we have to relate to the neighborhood groups.”

URS, with 30 years in school construction, understood the problems. They often had to work at night because the day is interrupted by lunch hours, recesses and students going home. School construction also means having young people at the site.

“Kids like to play with things,” said Holmes. “You leave things unattended and you have a problem.”

Sal Electric’s role was prime contractor and systems integrators, and coordination began immediately in the preconstruction meeting.

“Victor Fontana, my superintendent, and I, as systems integrators, pulled together all the subs and coordinated with the people at the schools, whether it was the principal, the janitors or the plant managers,” Chianetta said. “As the job progressed, we had to sequence the work that needed to be done.”

General construction work was done by subcontractor Pleasant Construction of Jersey City, who employed 10 people for their $300,000 job. Accurate Door and Hardware of Newark installed push bars on 200 interior and 120 exterior doors in the five schools. Prior to this $350,000 upgrade, which employed eight to 12 workers, a door could merely be pushed or pulled open. The push-bar allowed doors to latch, which is preferable in case of fire. (The computer-controlled doors can be set to allow egress only during an emergency.) For Accurate, the short time frame affected material deliveries.

“We were running three month contracts and it takes six to eight weeks to get all the materials so it didn’t leave a lot of time to do the work,” said Sal Cornetto, Accurate’s installations supervisor.

Sal Electric’s fifteen-member crew ran all wires to the exterior door frames, wired each door and connected all wires and cables to the main control panels to coordinate door control, clocks, fire alarm and sound system.

School administrators were consulted on bell schedules. One principal wanted all doors open at 8 a.m., but at 8:30 only one door was to remain open. At 10 a.m., two other doors were opened for teachers entering from an adjacent parking lot. At lunch, access was controlled by opening two other doors, preventing kids from sneaking in from the basement or rear of the building.

Locknetics, a maker of electromagnetic lock systems, was chosen because its product met the architect’s specifications. Locknetics products were distributed by Institutional Systems Service Corporation (ISS) of Waldwick, N.J., who also provided technical support.

“Rather than go to four different manufacturers, we coordinated with one person at ISS,” said Chianetta.

Brian LoRusso, of ISS, said Sal Electric’s system was identical to those he’d been running and had actually created with the Jersey City School District five years ago.

“We developed the design based on the equipment and its capabilities and tied the clock, fire alarm, sound system all together with an automatic door release—an ADR panel,” LoRusso said. “The beauty of the design is its redundancy in terms of fail-safes. If something isn’t working, it doesn’t mean something else can’t handle the job. Each door has both an electronic push bar and an electronic magnet. The chance of both of them failing are slim to none.”

Teachers, administrators and others can also use key fobs that plug into receptacles to exit exterior doors. Each fob is programmed for use at certain doors, and if lost, its program can be immediately eliminated from the computer system, an improvement on the old system that necessitated changing locks if keys were lost or stolen. If an unauthorized person tries to exit a door, it will open after a 15-second delay and an alarm will sound in a central control area.

Under the new system, students do not exit from most exterior doors except at the end of the day, and their closure prevents re-entry. This promises increased security and decreased maintenance. Yet any job around students necessitates a budget line for repair.

“We replaced a lot of doors that went onto existing frames,” said Chianetta. “That calls for adjustments. It’s no problem when we set it up, but it becomes a problem when the students start using them. If we figured 1,000 man-hours for the job and we did it in 900, then when it comes time for adjustment we could have a cushion. If not, it eats into our profit.

“But there are two things,” Chianetta added. “The warranty kicks in for a year. The other issue is vandalism. We don’t cover that. We get calls: ‘The push bar fell off. We want it replaced.’

Well, how did that happen? Push bars don’t just fall off.”

And so it goes. Security comes at a high price. What’s the bottom line?

“Sal Electric did a tremendous job,” said URS Corp.’s Holmes, “and they did it in a short period of time.”

CASEY, author of "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors" and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at or

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