The following is from Greg Lembrich, Maplewood Township Committee member.
On Thursday night I will proudly join my colleagues from the Maplewood Township Committee, South Orange Board of Trustees, and South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education to vote on informal, preliminary approval for the Long Range Facilities Plan (“LRFP”) for our school district. This project likely will be the most significant and longest lasting action that we, as elected officials, will have the opportunity to make during our tenures. Personally, I know it is the most important vote I will cast, and I want the community to understand both why it is so critical and also why I will enthusiastically vote Yes.
That we are moving forward with a commitment to spend at least $140 million of taxpayer money (and likely more) is not a decision that has been made hastily, nor one that any of us take lightly. The need to do so is the product of decades of neglect, negligence, and delay. Our facilities are in a shameful state of disrepair, to the point where the health and safety of our children is compromised. Our classrooms are woefully overcrowded and inadequate to meet the needs of our community. And our elementary schools are segregated by race and socioeconomic status to an extent that is unworthy of our community’s commitment to diversity and equality.
The toughest question I am asked as a Township Committee member is why Maplewood and South Orange pay among the highest property taxes in the nation but our schools are deteriorating and our classrooms dated and overcrowded. As local elected officials, and as a community, we are constantly confronted with problems that are beyond our ability to fix. New Jersey Transit, the national opioid crisis, a broken immigration system … the list goes on. But fortunately our district’s crumbling facilities, overcrowded classrooms, and segregated schools are issues that we can address and improve. While it will require tremendous financial commitment by our community and personal sacrifice for many of our residents, I believe that it is a moral imperative that we do so.
The LRFP is the product of over a year of hard work by many people, and its preliminary approval this week is only possible due to a renewed commitment to partnership among the Board of Education and governing bodies of Maplewood and South Orange that began even earlier. Recognizing the importance of sharing information and coordinating our strategic planning, the Board of Education, Maplewood Township Committee, and South Orange Board of Trustees began meeting on a monthly basis with the Superintendent more than two years ago. More frequent meetings, including smaller group sessions, were held recently to fine tune and finalize the LRFP.
Thus, while Superintendent [Dr. Thomas] Ficarra, SOMSD Business Administrator Paul Roth, and the Board of Education did the arduous day-to-day work to formulate what ultimately became the LRFP, they communicated consistently and transparently with the governing bodies of both towns. Proposals were shared, ideas were discussed, and feedback was received and incorporated. It was an example of cooperation that I wish our state and national leaders could emulate.
This approach of clear communication and opportunity for input has continued in the school district’s presentation of the LRFP to the public. In addition to extended discussions and presentations during regular and special Board of Education meetings, Superintendent Ficarra and Mr. Roth also conducted public presentations at schools throughout the district, giving residents the opportunity to hear (and see) the issues that the LRFP will address, hear about the plan, ask questions, and provide their own ideas and reactions. The LRFP has undergone many changes in response to the public feedback received, and the revisions better reflect our community’s needs and priorities.
Further changes, no doubt, will continue to improve the LRFP in the coming months before final approval. Numerous additional options have been proposed and are still being considered, including expanded preschool, the addition of central air conditioning to the schools, and focused repair of district athletic fields and facilities. I likely will support many of these as well, though I do not feel that any cost-benefit analysis can justify spending over $20 million to reinforce schools roofs to support solar panels, particularly where the district will not recognize the subsequent savings in energy costs. I also believe greater scrutiny is needed regarding some of the proposed security expenditures in the current LRFP. Nonetheless, the plan represents a gigantic step forward for our district, and I will be proud to support its preliminary approval.
That our facilities are in need of significant renovation and repair is obvious to the eye of anyone who spends any time in our schools. So too is the need for new classroom space to alleviate overcrowding, handle increased enrollments, and eliminate our reliance on portable classroom trailers that are long past their expiration dates. These improvements are expensive, but absolutely necessary for the health, safety, and educational welfare of our children.
Though less obvious to the naked eye, equally important is the work of desegregating our elementary schools. Maplewood and South Orange celebrate our diversity, and we pride ourselves as progressive communities committed to equality. Yet our reality does not always match our reputation. While the past several decades have brought much positive change to our towns, our neighborhoods have become less integrated, and our schools therefore more segregated. Demographic reports now show glaring disparities in the racial and economic compositions of the student bodies in elementary schools across our district.
As my law school professor and mentor Jack Greenberg taught me, schools that are segregated by race and/or class are inherently unequal. Moreover, the rich diversity that is the hallmark of our two towns is squandered if our children are deprived of being exposed to its full range during their formative elementary school years. The purpose of our elementary schools goes far beyond teaching children to read, write, and do arithmetic. It is also to create a love of learning, promote early exploration of different experiences and viewpoints, and prepare young people to live in our free and democratic society. All of these goals are advanced by having classrooms that reflect the diversity of our community.
More even than our prized location, beautiful parks, and myriad committed volunteers, our community’s most valuable resource is our children. Our investment in them and their education is the most vital contribution we can make to realizing a brighter, fairer society for the future. As the cliché goes, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. Not only will our commitment to repair, modernize, and expand our facilities benefit our children, but a stronger public school system will also preserve and increase residential property values, becoming yet another factor drawing families to SOMA. Thus, regardless of whether one is focused on the big picture or the bottom line, the decision to support the LRFP is clear.
We should not and cannot defer this important work any longer. While the financial cost of the LRFP is admittedly high, and I appreciate the financial burden that many of our residents already bear, the costs to our community of not moving forward will be much greater. I urge not only my fellow elected officials, but all of my neighbors in Maplewood and South Orange, to support the LRFP and efforts to desegregate our schools. There is no better way to confirm and express our community values than to back them up with our money and our actions.
Editor’s note: Mr. Lembrich is writing to express his own views here and is not writing on behalf of the Maplewood Township Committee.