District unveils plan for buildings, grades

Maplewood Middle School

MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Acting Superintendent Thomas Ficarra unveiled the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s long-range facilities and integration plan at the Board of Education’s May 14 meeting. In his presentation, Ficarra introduced a plan to renovate and upgrade the district’s school buildings while better integrating the schools by redrawing district lines.

The plan will cost a total of $127.7 million, with approximately $93.1 million going to capital improvements and approximately $34.5 million to build additional space at several schools in order to accommodate the growing population of school-aged children in the district. According to Ficarra, the district administrators will present the plan to community members in a series of meetings throughout the rest of May and June, at which they will hear input from residents before revisiting the plan in September and then asking the BOE to approve the plan in the fall.

“I came here in August, and very quickly it was brought to my attention the state of the facilities,” Ficarra said at the meeting. “We held some meetings with architects and reviewed the facilities plans that we had.”

Ficarra said he and Paul Roth, the district’s business administrator, had walked through each school building in the district before consulting with Spiezle Architectural Group, which put together a plan and bids for the improvements necessary to each building.

“This included talking to principals, custodians and staff members, as well as reviewing all the past analysis that was piled up from past reviews of work that was never done,” Ficarra said of the process he and Roth undertook to identify the schools’ needs. “We’ll be taking this to community meetings throughout May and June. The purpose of that is, we think we got it right but we don’t want to rush out there and assume that we know everything. We would like to hear community input, so we’re going to take the next month and a half to review.”

In addition the BOE approval, the district will also be asking the Board of School Estimates for an informal approval of the plan. The reason for the informal approval, according to Ficarra, is so that safety regulations are in compliance with the state Department of Education.

Ficarra described the plan to the BOE and audience members at the meeting. It includes redrawing district lines at the elementary school level and changing the grade levels housed inside each town’s middle school.

“We’re going to be talking about a configuration that looks like K to four for all the elementary schools, a central five-six and a central seven-eight,” he said, referring the the grade levels. “Of course the high school will remain where the high school is. That configuration guarantees that five to 12 will be a fully integrated school situation for all of those children, because everyone in fifth grade will be in one building along with everyone in sixth grade, and the same for seventh and eighth grade.”

The plan proposes that fifth- and sixth-grade students attend Maplewood Middle School, and seventh- and eighth-graders will attend South Orange Middle School. Columbia High School will remain home to all district students in grades nine to 12.

With the change, elementary schools will only house students in grades kindergarten through four. The Marshall-Jefferson configuration, in which Marshall Elementary School is home to kindergarten through second grade and Jefferson Elementary School holds students in third, fourth and fifth grades, will end. Seth Boyden Elementary School’s broad enrollment will also end if the new plan is approved.

“That K to four configuration will have to have district lines redrawn,” Ficarra said. “The reason for that is that we want to have a completely integrated school district at the elementary level. Our rule of thumb for that is that every school has the same demographic as the entire district. That we cannot accomplish by keeping the same district lines. What we want is to draw lines that you can count on knowing where you’re going to be going in the future and have that be steady.”

Ficarra said that the discussion about where the elementary school district lines will be drawn will take several months, and will not happen until after the BOE approves the overall plan. The reason, he said, is that the district wants to make sure that the school buildings will be able to hold all of the students in the newly drawn district lines.

“The discussion about what the district lines will look like will probably take a couple of months and probably cause a lot of debate,” Ficarra said. “It’s been my experience that not everybody is happy with the final lines of redistricting, but we want to put that after we have approval for housing all the children and making sure that all the buildings are brought up to safety standards.”

Ficarra said the improvement plan does not leave room for “wish list” items or items the district wants to include, if extra money is found. The renovations are solely focused on what is needed in each school building.

Scott Downie, an architectural consultant at Spiezle, attended the meeting and broke down the costs associated with each part of the plan. According to Downie, $5.3 million will be spent on security enhancements; $15.1 million for improvements to stairs and railings, and $5.6 million for roofing. Replacing windows in the district will cost $1.1 million, and interior improvements — such as converting the CHS pool to classroom space and making changes to the library — will cost $10.5 million.

Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades will cost the district $8.2 million; $1.5 million will be spent on site improvements; electrical work will cost $3.8 million; and insulation, radiators and boiler work will cost $41 million.

The last of the capital budget will be spent on plumbing work, asbestos treatment and bathrooms for transgender students and rooms for staff, with the district spending $410,000, $456,000 and $85,000, respectively.

“This proposal is primarily for the health and safety of the children,” Ficarra said at the meeting. “We took any renovations or repairs from the central office and maintenance. So the adults are going to figure out how to survive and fix our problems here in the central office and maintenance areas in an attempt to get the cost down, and in an attempt to make sure that we’re putting the money toward the health and safety of children and additional space for those children.”

The district will hold several community meetings to discuss the long-range facilities and integration plan. Each meeting will include the same presentation. Meetings will be held on the following dates and times: Wednesday, May 30, at 7:30 p.m. at Seth Boyden School, 274 Boyden Ave. in Maplewood; Thursday, May 31, at 7:30 p.m. at Marshall Elementary School, 262 Grove Road in South Orange; Wednesday, June 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the Board of Education meeting room, 525 Academy St. in Maplewood; Thursday, June 7, at 7:30 p.m. at Clinton Elementary School, 27 Berkshire Road in Maplewood; Wednesday, June 13, at 7:30 p.m. at South Orange Middle School, 70 N. Ridgewood Road in South Orange; and Thursday, June 14, at 11 a.m. in the Board of Education meeting room, 525 Academy St. in Maplewood.