The reorganization of South Orange and Maplewood schools — intended to eliminate segregation in the district — is underway but will be postponed until September 2021, interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra said at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.
In response to community input, a proposed plan to remake all elementary schools K-4 with central schools for grades 5-6 and 7-8 was scrapped in October in favor of keeping the current K-5 and two Grade 6-8 schools as they are. That, Ficarra said Monday, necessitated updated school construction plans that will require approval from the state.
“That’s where the plans are now, with the Department of Education in Trenton,” he said, adding that the shortened timeline made the postponement necessary.
“When you miss the beginning of September, you miss the whole year,” Ficarra added, noting the “complexity” of the process. “We are aiming comfortably at September 2021,” with construction “probably” ending mid -2021.
See the details of the plan on the district website (the long awaited revamping of which has also been postponed, according to a brief update from board member Susie Adamson on Monday.)
In November, the Board of Education unanimously approved the Long Range Facilities Plan outlining nearly $140 million in improvements and construction projects for the district. The plan budgeted for the expansion of elementary schools to eliminate the need for portable trailers as classrooms, accommodate growing enrollment and make long-overdue improvements to crumbling buildings, as well as allowing for the integration of elementary schools.
The BOE expects the state to complete its review of the plan on or around May 8, which will be followed by consideration from the local Board of School Estimate, which will need to approve the tax levy on SOMA residents before the project enters the bidding process stage.
“Everything is still in the approval and planning stages, but we are on the road to putting shovel in the ground,” Ficarra said.
In the meantime, principals and administrators from throughout the district are meeting on a regular basis to work out the details of integration, the creation of theme schools and the establishment of potential best practices.
The South Orange-Maplewood School District has also created parent groups with representatives from all elementary schools “to be a bridge to the community as we go through the process,” Ficarra added. A district spokeswoman also communicated to Village Green that the SOMSD 2020 Parenting Center Committee is working on the family engagement component of the elementary reconfiguration plan, which will include community events.
In addition to community outreach, the school district also plans trips to schools in other districts “to see what’s been done successfully in other places,” Ficarra said.
Trips have been planned to P.S. 28 in Jersey City, as well as Andover, Massachusetts, “to see what their theme schools are like,” with other fact-finding missions to schools in Morristown, Manhattan and Brooklyn, Ficarra said.
During the public speaks portion of the BOE meeting — during which community members may address, but not debate, the board members — Maplewood resident Abigail Murtaugh thanked the board for its transparency around the LRFP process while pleading for more information about its 2019 goals.
“There’s no mention of a plan to integrate the schools [or] close the achievement gap,” she said. “That silence has bred misinformation because when you don’t say something, our minds work overtime to fill the void.”
Murtaugh added that even telling the community that the board is working on “a viable integration plan” would be appreciated. “I ask you to keep this conversation going.”