Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra and architect Scott Downey of Spiezle Architectural Group presented a $131 million proposal to fix the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s 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 take place after the facilities plan is approved.
“This is a tremendous amount of work that’s ahead of us,” said Board of Education member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad. “There’s so much more to this than the physical buildings.”
Ficarra said that he will now take the next month and a half to take the presentation to the community and solicit feedback. He said that he would pause over the summer recess and then “start again” in September with community and Board of Education discussion to review the plan. Ficarra said he would be looking for Board of Ed approval on or around October 1 and then for an informal approval from the Board of School Estimate — since the BSE will ultimately “have to approve the bonding.”
The plan would then go to the architects to create drawings, with an aim to solicit bids in January/February so that construction could take place in Summer 2019.
Regarding the reconfiguration of elementary and middle schools, Ficarra said this configuration was not only the cheapest (eschewing the need for major new construction at multiple elementary schools) but had the most desirable impact for education.
Ficarra said that district lines would need to be redrawn for elementary schools in order to “have the schools completely integrated,” saying he wanted to ensure that “every school has the same demographic as the entire district.” Ficarra said that he thought that discussion on district lines “will probably take a couple of months and will probably take lots of debate.”
Ficarra and Downey emphasized that the $91 million in facilities renovations included no “like to haves” or “wish we hads” but was a very basic plan to repair facilities for the “health and safety” of the children. In fact, any improvements to administrative space had been left out of the proposal.
Downey noted that the list of renovations started at 800 items across all buildings at $217 million and then was pared back to highest priorities for a total of about $91 million.
The proposed facilities renovations include:
- Security — $5.3Million
- Life Safety — $15.1 M
- Roofs — $5.6M
- Windows — $1.1M
- Interiors — $10.5M
- ADA $8.2M
- Site improvements (outdoor), $1.5M
- Electircal — $3.8M
- HVAC — $41M
- Plumbing — $410K
- Transgender bathrooms/breast-pumping space — $85K
- Abatement — about half million
Downey then discussed NEW construction proposals that totaled $34.5 million. The new configurations plus enrollment projections would necessitate that additions be built at the middle schools and at the high school, with some at the elementary schools. Ficarra said that after the plan was completed there would no longer be portables in the district and that they would all be “knocked down.”
The $34.5 million to expand schools brought the overall ask to $131 million.
Ficarra said that much of the cost would be covered through bonding, although there will be a State of New Jersey share of the project; however, that share will not be known until the plan is submitted to the NJ State Department of Education. SOMSD Business Administration Paul Roth said that the bonds would be a combination or 20- and 30-year bonds. Ficarra noted that debt service is outside the budget. “We are anticipating an infusion of $93M in cash that should drastically cut down the amount we spend on maintenance” in annual budgets, said Ficarra.
BOE members had questions about the demographer’s work and were concerned that private school trends and impacts of new development were properly considered.
“I kinda think that we are underestimating our growth,” said Board member Johanna Wright. “Quite a few younger siblings are coming along. I think we should prepare for a higher number than has been projected.”
Downey assured Wright that there was flexibility in the school building capacity numbers “because your class size policies allow you to extend up a little.”
A parent thought that SOMS with its outdoor space might be better for 5th and 6th grades and that MMS might be better for grades 7 and 8 because of the new science wing. She also wondered if the new superintendent would have buy-in. Ficarra noted that new superintendent buy-in could be handled as part of the interview process. He also said that the change in leadership was why he was looking for informal BSE approval for the reconfiguration before going to bid.
Board member Susie Adamson noted that the district would be seeking additional aid for the new transportation costs; Ficarra explained that the State of New Jersey “will increase your transportation aid as you increase your costs. But that plan is not fully developed.”
A schedule for five followup meetings to take place in schools around the district will be released in the coming days. Ficarra said that community groups will also be invited to those meetings. Special meetings might also be set up for individual groups that request a meeting.