SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education unanimously approved the recommended Long Range Facilities Plan at its Nov. 19 meeting, passing a resolution that will allow the district to spend approximately $140 million on repairs and expansions to the district’s schools. Of that total, $93.1 million will be spent on health and safety renovations while $47.8 million is reserved for expansion. The kindergarten through fifth grade configuration will remain, with the Marshall-Jefferson split disappearing; students in sixth through eighth grade will continue to attend either Maplewood or South Orange middle schools; and all high school students will continue to attend Columbia High School. There will now be controlled choice at the elementary level, allowing students to choose which school they attend.
The original plan was introduced to the public and the BOE in April and then workshopped after acting Superintendent Thomas Ficarra and members of the district administration held community meetings in the summer. Adjusted to reflect residents’ concerns and growing enrollment, the plan was changed before the Nov. 19 meeting.
“We went through a list of options and sometime in late April came before the board and said that we were recommending a K-to-four configuration with a central five-and-six school and a central seven-and-eight,” Ficarra said at the meeting. “We took that out to the public and we got lots of feedback.”
Ficarra said that many community members had concerns about the number of transitions students would be going through before reaching CHS. As they move through the district in the original proposal, the average student would attend four schools.
“That was something that we listened to,” Ficarra said. “They also talked about the additional traffic costs for a K-to-four configuration, because attending a school on the other end of town adds additional busing for people who normally would have walked to school.”
He also mentioned that the district had considered a kindergarten-through-eighth configuration, but the same transportation problems would apply. Additionally, with that configuration, the district would need to expand school libraries and science labs to accommodate students of a larger age range.
Business Administrator Paul Roth said that demographers have projected there to be 7,261 students in the district in five years, and the additions to be built at the elementary schools will help to accommodate more students.
“There is research out there that says it’s the best model, but there is research that contradicts it,” Ficarra said, adding that none of the research is conclusive enough to justify the kindergarten-through-eighth model. “We also did a survey of teachers, and people had a strong feeling about not moving to a K-through-four model, particularly those teachers in fifth through eighth grade.”
He said the plan for the choice model at the elementary level would be presented before the end of this year. Included in that will be an integration plan for the district.
“We have committed to a plan for controlled choice that you will know the details of before the end of this year,” Ficarra said. “We are also committed to having a fully integrated school district with every school being the same demographic as the entire district.”
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.
The BOE also approved six additional options suggested by community members: $3.6 million to expand the preschool, $15.2 million to add air conditioning to the schools, $1.2 million to replace the turf at Underhill Field, $600,000 to improve the CHS observatory, $2.4 million to reinforce slate roofs for solar panel installation and $2.6 million to reinforce flat roofs for solar panel installation.
Ficarra said that although the plan will improve the district facilities, there will still be yearly repairs.
“It never stops with 7,200 kids running up and down the halls every day,” he said. “You will never stop needing repairs. The problem that this district got into is we can’t do the repairs we know need to be done because of the tax cap. If we bond it and spend it over 30 years, it will be cheaper and that money in the budget will enable us to look around and say, ‘Let’s paint that wall, let’s fix that rug and do those things to make the schools look good.”
The district will ask the Board of School Estimates for informal approval of the plan on Dec. 6, and redistricting and community discussion will take place between December and February. In February 2019, the BOE plans to request funding from the BSE, which will consider approving funding in March 2019.
According to BOE President Elizabeth Baker, the passing of the facilities plan is historic for the district.
“We have more work to do when we resume with the Board of School Estimates, but I’m so proud of what we’ve done and I appreciate everything that Dr. Ficarra and Mr. Roth have done to support this process,” she said.