Editor’s note: This story has been updating to note a clarification by Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker regarding potential redistricting.
Interim South Orange-Maplewood Superintendent of School Dr. Thomas Ficarra indicated on Monday night that he is “looking at facilities planning with an eye to solving de facto segregation” at the elementary school level.
Since a consultant’s report in April 2017 and a report by the Community Coalition on Race provided irrefutable evidence of the stark differences in enrollment by race across South Orange-Maplewood elementary schools, the district and the towns have braced themselves for a round of difficult discussions about re-zoning schools. Redistricting is still on the table, according to Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker, who pointed out to Village Green, “The Board has requested that the facilities plan include an organizational and districting model that will ensure sustained integration.”
But Ficarra stressed the ability to overcome segregation through facilities improvements in his comments at the monthly South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting on Monday night.
“We will lose the portables that are unsafe,” said Ficarra. “We have to not only upgrade but will be coming up with a plan for additional space.”
“We will come out with a plan solving repair and overcrowding issues but will also solve de facto segregation.”
Ficarra said that administration is moving fast on a facilities plan in order to have something before the Board of School Estimate in the spring semester to bond for improvements.
Thus far, administration has been waiting on structural studies which have been “a little delayed by finding a crack in the [Columbia High School] bell tower from the first to the third floor,” said Ficarra. “We don’t know if it’s minor or a structural extravaganza.” Ficarra said there was also a steel beam in a gym that had come down over a window.
Ficarra reported that district administration has also met with architects to condense “thousands of pages” regarding “all the projects over the many years.” Ficarra said that the review of schools and projects was being “put in a format” to help staff and the public “get our arms around the conversation and develop logic behind what we want to do.”
When the spreadsheets are organized and prioritized, administration will bring recommendations to the Board of Education, said Ficarra. After the Board decides on the recommendations, Ficarra said, “We would share those recommendations with the staff as well as the school community in public forums and at the town councils.”
Administration will then use the feedback to make adjustments and ultimately go before the Board of School Estimate and request bonding.
Ficarra noted that he had already met with the Maplewood Township Committee to discuss the need for a facilities overhaul and potential bonding. “I explained … that if you look at our budget we are allowed $2.3 million to raise the budget [that is] typically eaten up in salaries and health benefits.” Under such circumstances, Ficarra said there is “no way to budget for the millions of dollars of work that we are proposing.” (Later in the meeting, Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker described the facilities improvements as potentially costing “tens of millions” of dollars.) Ficarra indicated that Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca had indicated that he supported a facilities improvement process. Baker said that she and Ficarra would be making a presentation before the South Orange Board of Trustees on December 13.
Ficarra described the timeline as being on a “tight schedule”:
- End of November – broad estimates for structural studies to the Board in Committee.
- Space planning scenarios to be delivered to the Board by the end of the second week in December.
- After Holiday Recess, “we take the show on the road and get this moving quickly,” said Ficarra.
“I think this is urgent,” said Ficarra. “Every day that goes by, there is possibility for something to happen” — such as a ceiling falling.
“We are not going to let the year go by. We will have a proposal to bring to Board of School Estimate after lots of input from the community.”