District offers alternate redistricting plan for consideration

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Acting Superintendent Thomas Ficarra updated the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on the long-range facilities and integration plan at its Oct. 15 meeting, presenting the plan for facilities renovations, additions and redistricting after talking to parents and community members during the summer months. The $93.1 million plan for capital improvements remains the same, but the district is now considering changing the redistricting portion of the plan.

In May, Ficarra presented a plan that would see students in kindergarten through fourth grade attend redistricted elementary schools, fifth- and sixth-graders go to Maplewood Middle School, and seventh- and eighth-graders attend South Orange Middle School. In the plan, Columbia High School would remain the same and the Jefferson-Marshall split would end. After discussing the plan with the community in several meetings during the summer, Ficarra presented another redistricting option at the Oct. 15 meeting. The plan, like the previous version, also seeks to better integrate the district.

“Since our buildings are already over capacity, students are not guaranteed to go to their zoned school,” he said at the meeting, explaining that 28 percent of students in the district do not go to their neighborhood school. “There’s volumes of research that says integration benefits everyone. So we are bringing kids to a diverse school district and isolating them into small pockets, which we don’t want to do.”

Ficarra said that more than 1,000 people participated in the community discussions and shared their thoughts on the plan. In those discussions, the top concern regarded transitioning students from elementary school to one middle school to a second middle school and eventually to high school. Other issues that Ficarra said were brought up included traffic and transportation, professional development for teachers and school-specific programs.

“One of the things that came back loud and clear was that there were too many transitions and that we should consider other configurations instead of carving up the district in ways that would have balance,” he said.

The new possible option keeps the current configuration of kindergarten through fifth grade at the elementary level and sixth through eighth grade at the middle school level, while building additional space for students in those schools. CHS would again remain unchanged and the Jefferson-Marshall split would again be ended. In addition, there would be controlled choice within the district so that parents could choose where their students go to school.

“The board is still in consultation with the administration and trying to analyze which one of these two options will happen,” Ficarra said. “Both of these options call for controlled choice for the elementary schools. That was something that we got back from the public, some type of choice. They don’t want us to carve up the district and say ‘you go here, you go here.’”

According to Suzanne Turner, the district’s director of strategic communications, in a phone interview on Nov. 5, controlled choice schools are not magnet schools. Though not finalized yet, district principals are considering schools with themes and specific goals — similar to Seth Boyden Elementary Demonstration School — and parents would have three choices. Depending on capacity, students would either attend their first, second or third choice school. Students would not be zoned to attend a specific school.

In addition to the redistricting plan, Ficarra presented the capital improvements plan. Security improvements will cost approximately $5.3 million; “Life Safety” improvements to enhance physical safety as it relates to the actual building, such as improving stairways, will cost approximately $15.1 million; new roofing will cost approximately $5.6 million; window improvements will cost approximately $1.1 million; interior improvements will cost approximately $14.3 million; Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades will cost approximately $4.4 million; site improvements will cost approximately $1.5 million; heating and ventilation upgrades will cost approximately $38.3 million; asbestos abatement will cost approximately $3.2 million; plumbing improvements will cost approximately $410,000; and other miscellaneous upgrades will cost approximately $85,000.

Security is one of the most important costs in the facilities plan, Ficarra said.

“Our overarching goal is safety and health of the student body,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we have a bond that is keeping students and faculty healthy in the performance of their duties.”

Included in the security upgrades are CCTV camera systems, more secure school vestibules, and film on the windows of the buildings and on some inside doors to prevent them from breaking.

The capital improvements include removing the trailers at Clinton, Seth Boyden and Tuscan elementary schools. The district needs to conduct repairs on outside stairs at Clinton, Seth Boyden, Jefferson and South Mountain elementary schools, as well as on leaks and plaster in those buildings. Roofs need to patched and repaired in areas at all school buildings, and slate roofs will be replaced with artificial slate because it isn’t as heavy.

Handicapped access will be improved at Clinton, SOMS, MMS and CHS.

“Our goal is to make sure that a child who comes to this school district can have a pre-K through 12 experience and have complete handicapped access,” he said. “You want to have total handicapped access in every single building, as opposed to assigning a child who needs that to a particular building.”

Heating and ventilation improvement take up a large portion of the budget for the plan, coming in at approximately $38.3 million.

“Those of you who are familiar with the schools know that this is particularly acute in days when it is really cold,” Ficarra said, explaining that some parts of school buildings are very hot while others are very cold. “All of these things will be replaced, and we are proposing a long-term plan that goes out for a bid, and we get to analyze the bids and pick the lowest bidder as opposed to saying please, please come help us.”

Ficarra also said there are other improvements the district could be considering, but that it is holding back in order to have a more balanced budget and less of a tax impact on property owners. These potential improvements include expanding the Montrose Early Childhood Center, installing air conditioning in the schools, replacing the grass with turf at Underhill Field, upgrading the planetarium at CHS and adding solar panels to the roofs.

The tax impact was addressed, with Ficarra showing how both Maplewood and South Orange residents would be paying for the facilities plan. If the kindergarten through fourth grade redistricting plan is approved, the average Maplewood residents will be paying a total of $536; if the kindergarten through fifth grade plan is approved, they will be paying a total of $543. In South Orange, the average resident will be paying a total of $622 if the kindergarten through fourth grade plan is approved and a total of $630 if the kindergarten through fifth grade is approved.

Ficarra said that through the rest of October, the administration would be having discussions about the plan with the Board of School Estimate. In November, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education will choose which configuration option they want to vote on; then the district will draw plans to apply for funding between November and February. In March, the BOE is scheduled to vote on funding.

“I think the opportunity is now here for us to move this district ahead in terms of its physical plan, but also rethinking and redreaming on the elementary level to give you the kinds of choices you deserve, and have a future-forward school district at every level,” Ficarra said.