Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

Ficarra: Facilities Improvements and Integration Must Happen Together

Interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra presents at Clinton School, June 7, 2018

On Thursday, June 7, South Orange-Maplewood Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra continued his Facilities & Integration Plan road show with a presentation and Q&A at Clinton School.

Ficarra first introduced the $127 million  plan (upwards of $130 million if it includes a Montrose expansion) at the Board of Education meeting on May 14. The proposal aims to fix crumbling facilities and expand space, paving the way to end overcrowding and segregation in the district.

The proposal also includes a major reconfiguration, changing elementary schools from K-5 to K-4, placing all 5th and 6th graders at Maplewood Middle School, and placing all 7th and 8th graders at South Orange Middle School. Columbia High School would remain grades 9-12, and Montrose School would remain a pre-school. A plan to redistrict the elementary schools will be unveiled and discussed October through December this year — after the facilities plan is finalized and has informal approval from the Board of School Estimate. See Village Green’s full report on the May 14 presentation here.

The evening at Clinton School was the third in a series of six scheduled for this month and followed on a meeting a 525 Academy the night before, with two more meetings schedule for later this week (see schedule below).

After somewhat testy meetings last week at Seth Boyden School (where frustration was palpable over the non-renewal of Principal Damion Frye) and Marshall/Jefferson (where parents are concerned about the loss of the Marshall/Jefferson pairing), the meeting was positive overall, with pointed and detailed feedback and suggestions from parents that Ficarra said he was noting and would address and/or consider in a future iteration of the plan to be presented in September.

Ficarra told parents that the powerpoint presentation was being continually updated after each meeting with the feedback and suggestions from those meetings. (Board of Ed member Susie Synn Adamson and District Business Administrator Paul Roth were on hand taking notes.) The updated powerpoint is not presently available on the district website but will be completely updated and re-posted after the 6th meeting is completed later this week.

On June 7, three parents throughout the evening raised their hands to question why the Facilities plan needed to be combined with the Integration plan. Ficarra was adamant that the two go hand in hand. “I can’t conceive of spending $100 million and putting kids back into de facto segregated schools,” he said and received some applause for the statement.

Ficarra took the South Orange-Maplewood School District and the towns to task, in effect, saying that the district was dealing with a “segregation problem that most districts solved in the 70s.” One of the parents told Ficarra she was “kind of insulted” by that statement as she moved to town only 7 years ago and had moved here “for the diversity.”

Here’s a breakdown of the major suggestion/comments and Ficarra’s responses:

SOLAR PANELS? — Ficarra said solar panels on the roofs have not been considered but that he would take the suggestion into consideration. “The more eyes on the project, the better,” said Ficarra.

MAINTENANCE —  Will the district keep up the improvements once they are made? What is the maintenance plan? Ficarra said that the administration was looking at putting some of the funding into an ongoing maintenance plan and staff.

SIBLING PREFERENCE – Ficarra said that, yes, there would be sibling preference — meaning that the district would work to keep siblings together — through rezoning.

MMS for 7/8th INSTEAD of 4/6th GRADE – Ficarra noted that he had heard the feedback that MMS might be better for 7th and 8th grade because of its new science wing/labs.

CAN WE DO K8? — Ficarra said, “I don’t know how we would have the equity.”

SPECIAL EDUCATION CONSIDERED? — Ficarra said that the district was using an architect who worked on special education schools and that consideration for special education were “built in” to the plan.

IS THERE A REZONING PLAN YET? — “We do not have a rezoning plan right now,” said Ficarra. He reported that his staff would “digest this bear of a plan” and then do rezoning and “get your input on that.”

CONTINGENCY FEES INCLUDED? — Yes.

WHAT IF WE DON’T DO IT? — Ficarra said that the repairs needed to be made (and in fact this plan did not include all possible upgrades — for instance no improvements to administrative offices were included) but that “We can’t do it within the budget” — citing the 2% budget cap.

WHEN WOULD REDISTRICTING GO INTO EFFECT? — 2020/2021

WHEN WOULD ALL FACILITIES IMPROVEMENTS BE COMPLETED? — 2021/2022

WHY NOT AIR CONDITIONING? — Ficarra said that the district would create the electric capacity for single units in classrooms. He said that unites are not considered a long-term capital project. He also talked about the difficulty of doing AC for large spaces like the auditoriums which he said needed another level of AC that could cost upwards of $500,000 for each auditorium.

WHY NOT BULLET PROOF GLASS? — Ficarra had talked about an allocation for film on glass to make windows shatterproof and therefore more safe in a potential school shooting incident (a shooter could not shoot out the glass and gain entry). A parent asked, “Why not bullet proof glass?” Ficarra said the cost could be “astronomical” but “we’ll take a look.” The parent responded, “I don’t want to wake up one day and the only kid I have is not coming home.”

TAX LEVY IMPACT — The last calculation for the tax impact on the approx. $130M bonding was around $500/household per year, but that was not a final number, Ficarra warned. He said that the calculation was about 10 cents per $100 of assessed value. Ficarra talked about ultimate savings in annual SOMSD budgeting as need to deal with emergency repairs reduces and cost savings are realized on energy.

BUSING/TRANSPORTATION — Ficarra said that administration was looking at tiered bussing and adjusting schedules in order to realize cost savings in bussing for the 5/6 and 7/8 grade pairings. When asked about whether there had been a study on the traffic impact of the 5/6 and 7/8 pairings, Ficarra said that his team needed to study the issue more extensively but noted that “even kids who live close to schools” are being driven to school now.

K6 MODEL? — A parent felt that a K6 model might allow families to stay near their home schools and help with integration. “We can look at that,” said Ficarra, but he pointed out that “the law is very clear that we cannot integrate by putting the burden on the one school.”

CAN 5/6th GRADE CO-EXIST WELL? THEY ARE SO DIFFERENT — Ficarra said that the merge would be done to make the grades look more alike, adding more specials and possibly allowing recess for 6th grade as well as 5th.

THANK YOU — a number of questioners took time to thank Ficarra and his team during their comments.

CAN HIGH SCHOOL START LATER? — Ficarra said, “I’d love to see that happen. The problem is high school sports” needing to practice and play in the afternoon.

SOUTH MOUNTAIN SCHOOL — Libraries are inequitable at school and the annex. Ficarra said he was “taking a note on that.”

WILL WE CONTINUE TO CONTRACT OUT BUSING? — Ficarra said, “Yes,” but said that the district was working with the contractor on problems and for improvements such as adding cameras on buses.

CAN DEMOGRAPHERS REPORT BE MADE AVAILABLE? — Yes, Paul Roth will be putting that online. (Village Green will check back on this.)

WHAT STEPS ARE BEING TAKEN FOR CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE LEADERSHIP AT THE SCHOOLS? — Ficarra pointed to the new team of Donna Rando, the Acting Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum, and Laura Morano, Consultant to the Department of Special Services.

SOCIAL EMOTIONAL IMPACTS OF NEW PARINGS — A parent asked for more transparency on the social emotional impacts of grade parings. Ficarra took a note.

CLEAN ENERGY? — A parent asked that the district look at state level clean energy programs and money available for sustainability projects.

INSPECTION PROGRAM FOR FACILITIES SAFETY NOW? — A parent expressed concern after seeing the photos of chronic disrepair such as a collapsed ceiling and asked in an inspection program was in place now. Ficarra said that there was now building checklists that were reviewed with monthly building tours. “Trying to catch up with $93 million worth ow work,” said Ficarra, was like “emptying the ocean with a pail.”

TIMING OF PLAN APPROVAL AS RELATED TO BOARD OF ED ELECTION — Ficarra said that he did not think the plan’s approval needed to wait until after the November election. “You will know where the candidates stand,” said Ficarra.

WHY NOT SPEND THIS MONEY ON CURRICULUM? — Ficarra pointed out that you cannot bond for curriculum/education.

MAGNET SCHOOL? — Ficarra said that the possibility was there at some future date: “Do that with your full time Superintendent!”

TECHNOLOGY UPGRADES? — Ficarra said that technology was not bondable but assured parent that the new director of technology was currently working to convert the district to a new email system in July and that the district was looking at a new website. On a positive note, Ficarrra said that the cost of technology has been driven down (“We’re no longer building computer labs”) and that there district would be bringing in hundreds of new Google Chrome books.

SAFETY OF PORTABLES NOW? — Although portables will eventually be removed as part of the plan, Ficarra said that, in the interim, the district would be looking as safety proposals for the portables now and making some repairs.

TEACHER RETENTION — Ficarra said that the district would be “paying close attention” to teacher retention. He recalled a transition in Elizabeth were “all the teachers moved were the teachers principals didn’t want.” Ficarra said, “Involuntary trasnfers are not good for anyone.”

ADDITIONAL AFTERCARE? — Ficarra said that additional after care sites was not currently a part of the plan but “we can take a note.”

WHY NOT BUILD NEW BUILDINGS? — A parent likened repairing the existing buildings to doing an “overhaul on the Titanic and rearranging the deck chairs.” But Ficarra insisted (1) there is no other land, (2) the cost of a new building is about $40 million, and (3) older building are better built. He said that the best building in the Morris District was built in 1918 and that “some schools built in the 80s are worse.” Basically, Ficarra said that buildings are made that well anymore. He said that the SOMSD schools had “great structure and foundations” and that it would be “wasteful to know down when you can repair” at lower cost.

TIMELINE — After gathering feedback from the meetings, Ficarra said that administration would spend the summer addressing questions and considering suggestions and, in September, would present the plan with changes. Ficarra said he wnaned to have the plan before the Board of School Estimate (made up of a combination of South Orange Trustees, Maplewood Township Committee members and Board of Ed members) for an informal approval in October. The rezoning/redistricting plan to integrate the district would be presented and discussed October through December, with final approval of both plans scheduled for January with an aim of going to bid in time for summer 2019 construction.

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