Long Range Facilities Plan OK’d informally by BSE

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of School Estimates informally approved the Long Range Facilities Plan that the Board of Education passed at a Dec. 6 meeting, allowing the BOE to move forward with pricing out bids and request funding for $93.1 million in health and safety repairs and $47.8 million for expansion.

The BSE is composed of three members of the Maplewood Township Committee, three members of the South Orange Board of Trustees and two members of the BOE. The Dec. 6 BSE meeting included Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee, Maplewood Committeeman Greg Lembrich, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, South Orange Trustees Howard Levison and Walter Clarke, BOE President Elizabeth Baker and BOE member Susie Adamson.

“This is the first major collective step toward a major investment in our schools, which will ensure that our schools have sufficient capacity,” Baker said at the meeting. “It will also make sure our schools are safe, dynamic and engaging learning communities and they represent the community. We’ll be creating a reorganization model for our elementary and middle schools which will ensure that all of our schools are integrated and reflective of the diversity of our community and all students have equal and equitable opportunities to the resources in our community.”

The BSE discussed the components of the facilities plan, which includes redistricting at the elementary level and building additions to the schools that will eliminate portable classrooms. In 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.

At the meeting McGehee asked acting Superintendent Thomas Ficarra to discuss the facilities plan and ask the BSE for its input about managing the project due to the breadth and amount of work necessary.

“With a project of this magnitude, there is potential to have cost overruns,” McGehee said. “Are you going to outsource it? What is the process of managing this process?”

“Obviously this is a big project,” Ficarra responded. “The architect will draw up the bid specs and they will go out to bid. We’ll have a general contractor who will do the work. We’ll also be employing a project management company to ensure that we have someone who doesn’t have a financial interest other than with us.”

Lembrich asked if the district has a maintenance plan for after the work is completed.

“When we spend the money to improve these facilities, repair them and build new classrooms, we have to make sure that we’re going to have it in the budget year to year so we’re not allowing our facilities to deteriorate, so that in a few decades when we finish paying for this bond, we don’t have to go out for another one,” Lembrich said.

Ficarra said the district has been spending between $2 million and $4 million each year in emergency repairs. After the facilities plan work is implemented, this emergency money won’t need to be spent.

“That money should now be put into capital projects,” he said. “You should be doing that and you have to be doing that every year or you will be right back here. It never ends, and I don’t think that anyone is going to want to go back there.”

Collum said at the meeting that the district and towns should work together to manage expectations with the facilities plan, especially as South Orange is moving toward building more affordable housing units that could potentially bring students to the district.

“Nobody wants to be seen as ‘taxing and spending,’ but this is not ‘tax and spend,’” she said. “It is ‘tax and responsibly spend.’ So I think it is so important to look at how to create and keep age balance in our community and recognize that this will likely impact lower income families and those who are looking to downsize and have fixed incomes.”

The BSE also discussed the additional options the BOE presented that could be added to the facilities plan. Members agreed that they are in favor of using $3.6 million to expand the district’s preschool program if necessary as enrollment grows; installing air conditioning in all school buildings for $15.2 million; and replacing the turf at Underhill Field for $1.2 million.

Previously, upgrades to the Columbia High School observatory were included in the plan for $600,000 but Ficarra said at the meeting that the telescope improvements can be included in the district’s technology budget rather than the facilities plan. He also said at the meeting that the BOE will consider adding turf and lighting to Ritzer Field at CHS.

Redistricting and community discussion will take place between December and February. In February 2019, the BOE plans to formally request funding from the BSE, which will consider approving funding in March 2019.