The South Orange-Maplewood Board of School Estimate on June 11 unanimously approved a tax levy to pay for the school district’s “historic” $157.4 million capital improvement and integration plan.
After more than a year in the making and having undergone numerous changes, the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s Long Range Facilities Plan comprises a wide-ranging effort to build additional classroom space, address long-standing maintenance issues plaguing the district’s buildings, and achieve integration across all the schools in the two communities.
After the meeting, SOMSD Superintendent Ronald Taylor, who took office on Monday, July 8, called the approval “monumental.”
“It shows the investment of both the school board and the township councils, their investment in the students and their belief in the need for this work — not just for the current students, but for generations to come,” he said. “And I feel just honored to be able to help steward all the work that was described in this vote.”
Some of the biggest-ticket projects include renovations at Columbia High School at an estimated cost of $20.8 million and the addition of seven classrooms, with a price tag of $18.6 million. Renovations at Maplewood Middle School will clock in at $12.8 million. Sixteen extra classrooms at Marshall Elementary School, and the elimination of two portable trailers, will cost nearly $10.2 million.
Improvements are planned for all schools, and all elementary schools will be K-5, affecting the future configurations of Marshall, which is now K-2, and Jefferson Elementary School, which houses Grades 3-5.
Every school will reflect the demographic composition of the two municipalities it serves, too, according to previous discussions.
The plan includes $16.8 million to add air conditioning to all 10 of the district’s school buildings, as well as artificial turf to upgrade the aging turf field at the Underhill Sports Complex and to install it where grass now exists at Ritzer Field — an issue that drew impassioned comments, in favor and against, from the community at the June 13 Board of Education meeting.
South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, who heads the Board of School Estimate, thanked the people who spoke anew about their support or opposition of artificial turf at Ritzer Field, saying that members took “very seriously” all the remarks from the community.
Collum said that the maintenance of grass fields posed “challenges with pesticides and environmental impacts,” while also telling supporters of artificial turf, “Hopefully, you will partner with us on our green initiatives.”
Paul Roth, the district’s business administrator, said that the first tranche of bonds will total approximately $64 million and could be offered as soon as mid-August. Beyond that, architectural plans for the projects should be ready to put to bid by year’s end, with bids going out in early 2020 and construction ideally beginning in the spring.
Completion for all phases of the Long Range Facilities Plan is expected ahead of the start of the 2021-2022 school year, Roth added. “It’s going to be a tight schedule.”
The tax impact per average household in South Orange and Maplewood for the LRFP tax levy is estimated to be $537 per year for Maplewood and $583 for South Orange.