BSE approves $158.9M Long Range Facilities Plan

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
Jane Conrad speaks to the Board of School Estimates on July 10.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of School Estimates approved the $158.9 million Long Range Facilities Plan at its July 10 meeting, allowing the district to bond for upgrades and additional space at nearly every public school in the two towns. The plan includes $82 million to build additional space to accommodate the growing number of students in the district, as well as $1.2 million to replace the turf at Underhill Field, $2.1 million to add turf to Ritzer Field and $15.2 million to install air conditioning in all schools. The resolution passed unanimously.

The BSE comprises three members of the Maplewood Township Committee, three members of the South Orange Board of Trustees and two members of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. The board members are: Maplewood Committeeman Greg Lembrich, Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee and Mayor Vic DeLuca; South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, Trustee Karen Hartshorn Hilton and Trustee Steve Schnall; and BOE President Annemarie Maini and member Elizabeth Baker. Maplewood Committeeman Dean Dafis and South Orange Trustee Walter Clarke were present at the meeting to serve as alternates, if needed.

Several residents attended the meeting to ask the BSE not to approve the turf field options, citing the risk of injury to athletes on a harder surface and the more environmentally friendly benefits of grass fields. Jane Conrad was one attending opponent of turf fields, saying that turf creates dust that will ultimately be inhaled by players, possibly causing breathing issues. Conrad advocated for grass fields.

“You’re going to need grass no matter what, and I hope you can do a better job taking care of it going forward,” she said at the meeting. “I urge you to make a plan for grass field maintenance in the future.”

South Orange resident Marian Cutler encouraged the BSE to approve the turf fields, saying that in order for students to be able to use the fields consistently they should be turf.

“In order for them to practice, in order for them to play, in order for the marching band to perform, we need something that is sustainable and aesthetically pleasing,” Cutler said. “We all would love to play on beautiful lush lawns, but we don’t have the space. This is the most viable option we have right now.”

The tax impact of the facilities plan was also discussed, with several residents asking if the increase will be phased in. South Orange-Maplewood School District Business Administrator Paul Roth said it will be phased in. Ultimately, the impact per year for Maplewood will be $537 per taxpayer, while the impact per year for South Orange will be $583 per taxpayer; however, residents will not see those numbers on their next tax bills. The impact will peak around 2024 or 2025.

Collum made it clear, however, that the tax impact is in addition to municipal and county taxes.

Dan Dietrich, a South Orange resident, asked how the schools would be maintained after the work is completed. The LRFP work is scheduled to be completed in September 2021.

“I think we have a responsibility to give the people who come after us better,” Dietrich said at the meeting. “This stuff can’t fall apart before we’re done paying for it. Otherwise we’re just throwing money away, and it’s going to be almost impossible to do a bond issue like this again. So fix it, make it better for our students and the next generation, and then maintain it.”

According to Roth, the district has already started to build a reserve maintenance fund for the district to use as needed. Money has been moved into capital reserve and some maintenance costs have been brought in house rather than being paid to independent contractors.

“We’re being careful to build capital reserve so we can replace a roof at the end of its life expectancy,” Roth said. “We have money for the future and we won’t always be bonding for those things.”

After the resolution passed, Lembrich commended former interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra, who spearheaded the LRFP process and held several community meetings about the plans for the school buildings during his two-year tenure as head of the district. Collum did the same, and also thanked the residents of the two towns for their input.

“It was a heavy lift, and even though there wasn’t consensus on everything at the end, this really galvanized the community,” she said.