Redistricting alone will not solve the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s issues around increased enrollment, equity, racial balance and delivery of an excellent education, according to a consultant hired to develop redistricting proposals for the district.
However, he insisted, the district’s problems are “solvable” and the Board of Education should not despair.
The South Orange-Maplewood School District offers students an education that is “of the highest quality” — but the deteriorating facilities and schools bursting at the seams are not up to the standards of the district, and must be addressed now, said Ross Haber at a presentation to the Board of Education on April 24.
Haber also noted that district is suffering from racial imbalance on the elementary level, and a decreasing black population overall.
Haber was hired in August 2016 and has been evaluating the district’s programs, demographics and facilities since then. He explained that he was tasked with providing with a 5-year enrollment projection as well as look at facilities and then “tie that together.”
Diversity issues, both “socioeconomic and ethnic,” were “incredibly critical to my study,” said Haber, He also said that he also looked at facilities vis-a-vis providing services for special needs students and he recommended bringing out-of-district students back into the district.
Haber noted that he was instructed that no recommendation should violate the district’s Access & Equity policy. There were other strictures including that no recommendations should be made without a cost benefit analysis.
Haber said that while the education in the district “is of the highest quality,” the district’s buildings are old and in need of significant repairs. “Conditions are not up to the standards set by the educators of the district. At some point maintenance needs to be done,” said Haber. “You can’t drag your feet anymore.”
In particular, the high school — the district’s flagship school — is in need of major updates and modernization. In particular, Haber recommended that the pool should be repurposed to a science lab. Overall, Haber said that Columbia High School “is the pride of the community and it needs to reflect that a little bit more.”
Regarding enrollment issues, Haber said enrollment is projected to grow by 5.4% by 2021. Elementary school enrollment is projected to level off, but the district remains overcrowded.
Haber also included demographic breakdowns that echoed those given by Nancy Gagnier of the Community Coalition on Race in a presentation just prior, with the district’s white student population growing by 4.26% since 2011 and the black student population decreasing by 8.33% during the same time period. (Total enrollment grew by 6.5% in the time period.)
In particular, there was a “significant” increase in enrollment in white vs. black students at the high school, said Haber, and the trend continued “down the line” — except for the Seth Boyden Demonstration School where the black student population increased while white student population decreased.
Looking at the overall increases in enrollment, Haber noted that many people are desirous of moving into the community while there is no construction underway at the schools.
“Not to panic,” Haber reiterated. “You guys are doing a great job but you can’t drag your feet anymore.”
Overall, Haber said seven more classrooms were needed — or about 23 if you “take away the portables.”
Throughout the presentation, Haber cautioned calmness: “Every child in this district is in a safe place. So please, rest assured about that.”
Finally, Haber presented brief solutions (see around 1:52 in the video). He said that a combination of the following four items is needed:
Haber then outlined tasks ahead:
BOE President Elizabeth Baker called the presentation “sobering” that so much expansion was needed, but said, “it’s good for us and good for the community to hear those numbers.”
BOE 2nd Vice President Madhu Pai said that the district needed to think concretely about these four very broad solutions. “What’s the next step for determining concrete steps?” she asked Haber.
Haber said that the district needed “to decide among yourselves and take the temperature of the community” and see if the community is willing to “take on the cost.” He suggested that the district look at other models in other districts. After that, he said to look at what capacity needs are in real time and what the costs are.
Pai said that the community needed specific proposals rather than broad recommendations. Baker said that those specifics would be the work of the Board and its committees. Pai stressed that a plan was needed immediately to address programmatic and equity concerns, particularly regarding Seth Boyden School.
Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad expressed frustration and disappointment with the condition of Columbia High School. “Every time I walk into the high school, I am depressed that that is our flagship school,” she said. Lawson-Muhammad asserted that there wasn’t a willingness to tackle the issues at CHS when it was predominantly black. “Now … that it’s a predominately white school there is a sudden willingness to invest in the school.”
She continued: “Mark my words, in 10 years, it’s still going to be a whiter place … and we’re going to have a great school system that people finally want to invest in because were not a black community anymore….I”m just predicting the future.” (Lawson-Muhammad’s comments begin around the 2:20 mark in the meeting video.)
“Bam,” said BOE member Johanna Wright.
Baker added: “I do not disagree with anything you said,” but “I don’t think it’s just a reflection of the racial make up…. It’s been a lot of gimmicks. What we’ve been doing is not working out. We have to act….We are paying the price for 20 to 30 years at least of disinvestment in our schools.”
Pai said, “We need to invest, but we also need to be careful that we don’t turn into Chatham… if our taxes continue to increase, we continue to keep out people who can’t afford it.”
Haber seemed taken aback by the tone of the Board members’ comments and wanted to stress that he saw the district as being in “a solvable situation — it’s just about having the will to do it.”
Board member Maureen Jones said, “It’s not just the will… but the community has to be open to whatever options that we put on the table.”
BOE member Susie Adamson said, “I would challenge the Board that no matter how much we talk about integration, it needs to be the will of the Board to carry it through.”
Jones added, growing emotional, “We want diversity but how committed are we to integration?”
Watch the meeting on video here: https://somatv.viebit.com/player.php?hash=4pIpPX4Xph4L
See the CCR’s report on demographics here: https://www.twotowns.org/2016/11/10/report-to-the-community-soma-demographics/
See Haber’s slide presentation here: