BOE hears plans to evaluate long-range needs

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education’s discussion of the district’s Long Range Facilities Plan at a special meeting on Sept. 12 included the outstanding debt from past projects and how a referendum for more funding would affect taxpayers. The BOE addressed the referendum earlier this year, but Superintendent of Schools Scott Cascone said board members decided to slow the process down so they could make informed decisions about what might be included in the referendum. The meeting, according to Cascone, allowed members to talk about the funds the district would request in a referendum and the projects that would be covered by those funds. Currently, the referendum includes HVAC systems throughout the district, roofs on several schools and the retaining wall at Washington Elementary School.

“We thought about it a bit more and said ‘Shouldn’t we conduct a complete and thorough evaluation of all of our building systems in order to determine these things that are in the referendum are currently the highest priorities?’” Cascone said at the meeting. “‘Or are there other things that might push some of these more elective aspects of the HVAC system out of the box?’”

Some aspects of the district have been evaluated by internal employees, and some by EI Associates, an outside architecture firm. Cascone said a complete evaluation carried out by EI Associates would allow the district to better prioritize and plan the necessary work.

“Once we’ve had that, those two pieces can come together to create a referendum that’s not only valid in terms of what it includes, but also is as fiscally responsible as possible,” he said. “It’s not about moving the referendum forward quickly, it’s not even about evaluating the previous referendum that was discussed and proposed. It’s really about, what are our taxpayers currently bearing in debt service, and how do we go about ensuring a complete and thorough evaluation of our facilities?”

Michael Wozny, the director of educational projects at EI Associates, was at the meeting to present the evaluation options to the BOE. There are three choices, with varying amounts of detail included.

“The first option is to do what the state requires, to identify all the deficiencies that you want to include and a cost to it that would then be submitted,” Wozny said at the meeting. “Option two is going a little bit beyond that and putting together a facility-assessment report, which is a document you can flip through that has pictures in it and the descriptions are a little more detailed. It gives more of an explanation about why you need to do those things and helps you prioritize.”

Cascone pointed out the benefits of the second option.

“Part of the value of the second plan if that it’s in a format that can be useful moving forward in not only educating stakeholders about the needs, but also can be repurposed if and when we move into the referendum phase for marketing and branding and building understanding within the public about what those needs are,” he said.

Wozny then explained the third option, which involves an educational specialist talking to central administrators, child study team members, building principals and department heads in order to analyze the types of spaces they would like to have for their educational programs.

“Usually when we do that piece we’re not necessarily putting a cost next to those items because the solution may not be clear,” Wozny said. “There may be a lot of different solutions. You have to look at that more holistically when you talk about the use of the buildings and where programs are going to be, and how you’re going to solve certain needs of the programs.”

While the educational evaluation would be useful for the district, Cascone said it doesn’t have to be prioritized right away. The board could choose to do the educational evaluation as a separate piece and work through the list of projects it produces without a deadline.

“The other thing to consider is that when you hold curricular enhancements side by side with bringing buildings up to code, it’s hard to put even a really valid curricular enhancement above that,” he said. “As we build up our capital and maintenance reserve, we can start to earmark those projects to be done internally over the years.”

BOE President Ken Alper said the third option isn’t something the district needs immediately, especially since a new demographic study will be prepared within the next year. According to Alper, the two studies could be good companion pieces.

BOE member Mark Robertson agreed.

“Maybe that just needs to be built into annual plans and updates,” he said at the meeting. “I think because we have great examples of this already, that should be part of the existing Long Range curriculum plans that are being developed and we can go out to bid as these things develop.”

The other board members also agreed that the second option makes the most sense.

After discussing the referendum, Business Administrator John Calavano described the outstanding debt that the district has for previous projects in the district, going back more than 20 years. The most expensive project happened in 2003 and was for renovations to Redwood Elementary School; Gregory Elementary School; Pleasantdale Elementary School, which has since been renamed Kelly Elementary School; Washington Elementary School; Hazel Elementary School; Edison Middle School; and Roosevelt Middle School. The renovations cost $38,689,000 and the district has eight payments left. The tax impact on homeowners in West Orange is $174.81 per year.

“These are very small numbers because the total tax levy for the debt service is only $5.7 million,” Calavano said. “The big hit when you look at your school taxes is your operating budget, and that was $137 million.”

The district is also still paying for its improvements to Washington, and roof replacements at West Orange High School, and St. Cloud, Redwood and Mt. Pleasant elementary schools in 2006. The items cost $4,387,000 and there are only two payments left, costing each taxpayer $90.18 per year.

Additions were built at Redwood and WOHS in 1999, and the district has another 10 years of payments on them. The total cost of the additions was $37 million and the tax impact is $22.56 per household per year.

The last outstanding debt item, which has five payments left, is from renovations to Edison, Roosevelt and West Orange High schools. The tax impact is $28.31 per household per year for the $10,968,000 total bill.

“For the four issues that remain outstanding, the total tax impact in just the debt service of the total tax is $315.85,” Calavano said. “The outstanding debt is $50,240,000.”

Alper summarized the breakdown of the outstanding debt, explaining that, of the average $14,000 property tax bill in West Orange, about $8,000 goes to the school district. Of that $8,000, $316 goes toward outstanding debt. 

“Based upon the time sensitivity of the projects we’ve been discussing, it’s not really a question of if, it’s a question of how much,” Cascone said. “Ultimately, how much is the board and the community comfortable adding to the current debt?”