In what the Board of Education president called “a historic moment,” the South Orange and Maplewood Board of School Estimate voted unanimously Thursday to approve the school district moving forward with an ambitious $140 million long range facilities and integration plan.
“Tonight is a very exciting night, it is the first major collective step toward major investment in our schools” to house growing enrollment, ensure safety and that all schools are reflective of the community’s diversity, said President Elizabeth Baker, who commended the diligence and “courage” of municipal leaders. “This will really be a significant moment in our collective history.”
“Time is of the essence,” said Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra, who was given a mandate by the board when he was hired in the summer of 2017 to address crumbing infrastructure and lack of integration at the elementary school level.
The plan will add classroom space to replace aging portables, accommodate increased enrollment and integrate the elementary schools (projected to cost $47.3 million), as well as health and safety repairs and renovations ($93.1 million). The schools configuration will remain as PK/K-5/6-8/9-12.
“I consider and the board considers [those numbers] the absolute floor,” said Ficarra. “We’ve got to do that, we have to move.”
Regarding the integration plan, Ficarra repeated the pledge he has frequently made: “Every K-5 school will have the same demographic as the entire district.”
See the full Facilities Assessment attached here as a PDF:
The plan as estimated is expected to cost the average Maplewood tax payer $522/year and South Orange tax payer $606 — not including additional items the board agreed to consider (more about that below).
In most NJ school districts, bond issues go to a referendum, but SOMSD has a Board of School Estimate that needs to approve the tax levy. The BSE is comprised of three members of the Village Trustees of South Orange, three members of the Township Committee of Maplewood and two members of the Board of Education. Voting Thursday were South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and Trustees Howard Levison and Walter Clarke; Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee and Township Committee member Greg Lembrich; and BOE members Baker and Susie Adamson.
Before voting, BSE members asked questions about specifics of the plan:
Security costs. Collum said she got a lot of “pushback” from residents about the ability for CCTV to livestream footage to the towns’ police departments. “How will that information be used?”
Baker said the state requires districts to have livestreaming capability but the district has taken steps to ensure that is only used for emergencies, such as an active shooter or intruder in the building. “We would never have a situation where we had live cameras watching children in the halls, at the police station or anywhere else,” said Ficarra.
Business Administrator Paul Roth said there is money in the budget to update already existing security camera systems from analog to digital. “This isn’t something new that we haven’t done already.” The total amount in the budget for security is $5.3 million ($2.3 million to reinforce vestibules, $2.4 million to update camera systems and $450K for hardware expenses). The district will lobby for state money for security projects (and will actively seek state funding and grants for other parts of the plan).
Long-range maintenance plans: Lembrich asked if the district had a plan for maintenance after the repairs and renovations were completed. Ficarra said the district had been spending $2-4 million a year on emergence repairs (broken pipes, roof leaks etc.) and that money should instead be part of the capital budget.
“After this project is finished you should start to see $2-4 million in projects identified every single year” or “you’re just creating the next bond.”
Solar Panels: As one of the optional, “add-on” items the administration included in response to community input, the project’s architect estimated it would cost roughly $23 million to reinforce roofs to make them “solar-ready.” While the BSE expressed skepticism that going solar would provide a return on investment to the district, they said they would keep an open mind after getting more specific estimates on cost savings.
Collum cautioned the administration: “Please don’t waste a lot of time on this” because it is highly unlikely to be a cost savings in the end.
Project management: McGehee asked who would oversee the project and how cost overruns would be handled. Ficarra said the architects and engineers would ensure the general contractor is carrying out the work according to plan. The district would also hire an independent project manager who would intervene in the case of a dispute between the architect and general contractor. “No bills will be paid until the work is completed to 100 percent satisfaction.”
The BOE plans to meet regularly with the Maplewood TC and South Orange BOT throughout the process to keep them updated.
Optional “Add-On” Items
The BSE voted in a separate resolution on a short list of optional items. Thursday’s vote does NOT mean all the options will be bonded for and implemented, but that the BOE will direct the architect to draw up plans to present to the NJ State Dept. of Education. The BOE will still need to vote to officially approve the final number after all the cost estimates come in.
Here’s how the BSE voted:
Expand Pre-K $3.6m: Yes, if necessary (Baker explained the administration wasn’t sure yet if it would need to expand classrooms within the district, which would incur additional costs, vs. expanding through community partners, which would not.)
Air Conditioning $15.2m: Yes (the BSE unanimously agreed the addition of air conditioning in all schools is a necessity.)
Underhill Field $1.2m Yes to turf replacement.
Solar $23m An initial no, but the BSE will consider it after they see the projected expenses.
Ritzer Field field turf and lighting: Yes (the BOE has not yet voted on this because cost estimates were not yet available. The vote will happen on December 17.)
Collum said she fully supports the overall plan; however, she cautioned that residents should be prepared for their taxes to increase by 10% by year three of the bonding. “Our towns deserve to know the schedule of payments, particularly for those who will need to start making decisions.”
The hardest hit will be lower income and fixed income residents looking to downsize, Collum said, pointing out the need to create and maintain “some level of age balance in our community.”
The BOE will request the funding from the BSE in February, with a final vote and decision by the BSE in March. A discussion on redistricting will take place over the winter. As far as the repairs, Ficarra said it is a two-year timeline with much of the work being done over the summers.
Read more Village Green coverage here: