Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

South Orange-Maplewood BOE Approves Long Range Facilities Plan by 8-0 Vote

Standing room only at November 19 SOM BOE meeting. Photo by Tracey Hendel Woods.

The South Orange-Maplewood BOE voted 8-0 to approve the Long Range Facilities Plan that outlines nearly $140 million in improvements and construction projects for the district.

Next, architects will also prepare plans to submit to the NJ Dept. of Education for approval. The district will also have an informal presentation of the plan to the Board of School Estimate on December 6, with the aim of having a formal request to the BSE in February with approval in March. The goal of the district is to have shovels in the ground this summer while schools are not in session. Interim Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra said that completion is projected for 2020.

The plan allows for additions to numerous elementary schools in order to abolish all portables and accommodate increased enrollment, as well as provide much needed and long overdue improvements to crumbling buildings — including roof and system repairs. The health & safety aspect of the plan accounts for $93 million; the configuration plan now exceeds $40 million. The schools configuration for the district will remain as K-5/6-8/9-12, but buildings require additions to accommodate increased enrollment and the need provide space for students to integrate the elementary schools.

“I just want to note that what we did tonight in terms of the Long Range Facilities Plan is really historic and we have more work to do when we resume with the BSE on December 6 but I’m so proud of what we’ve done and I appreciate everything the Dr. Ficarra and Mr. Roth have done to support this process,” said BOE President Elizabeth Baker after the vote.

But before that moment arrived after midnight, Ficarra took the BOE through amendments to the plan and answered questions from members of the public. SOMSD Business Administrator Paul Roth also updated the BOE on new demographic projections that prompted an addition of about $5M in cost to the project to accommodate a projected additional 220 students in the district over a five-year period.

(Village Green took screen shots of notable slides. See below.)

“We can do all this little by little,” said Ficarra and ” never get ahead of the curve” and “always be reactive,” or, he said, the district can undertake this more comprehensive plan.

Ficarra noted that the 5-6/7-8 configuration originally proposed had ultimately been rejected due to too many transitions for students and the busing issue. He also explained that he considered “the pluses and minuses” of a K-8 configuration but found that the downsides included mixing older and younger children, transportation issues, and the difficulty in rebuilding current school facilities to meet the enrollment as well as the needs of all the students (such as science labs).

Ficarra noted that in taking the draft plan around the district in several listening sessions, he heard “mixed messages” from constituents. He said that options such as expanded preschool and solar panels where not part of the core plan but that “we will have the architects start working on all of those options” and “leave that up to a further decision.”

He, however, called the “bulk of that project” — the health and safety aspect projected at $93M — as necessary.

Ficarra addressed bathroom issues, saying that defective plumbing issues were a part of the health and safety proposal but that more cosmetic fixes like soap dispensers and fixtures were not: “We are aiming at the infrastructure of the district which is crumbling.”

The goal for completion of all the bonded projects is 2020, said Ficarra.

Ficarra said that discussions of the draft plan for integrating the elementary schools was coming soon: “Every school will have the same demographics.” He said, “You will love it.”

Regarding the tax impact of the plan, Ficarra showed a slide that outlined the impact for the average Maplewood household at $510.53 per year and South Orange at $592.68.

During public speaks, members of the public voiced their support but asked for certain changes or focuses.

Glenn Minerley of the Facebook group MAPSO Recreation Fields Task Force read a statement from the group calling for the district to allocate additional funds for: 1) a new turf at Underhill Field; 2) a turf field on Ritzer (behind Columbia High School); and 3) field lights on Ritzer. Minerly said that the district’s children were both at risk and disadvantaged by current field conditions.

Another commenter said he was interesting in getting more information on how district could recoup the costs related to solar energy.

Jessi Empestan  of the Facebook groups PARES and SOMA Justice read a letter from the leadership of those groups asking for the removal of two policies related to security and questioning the $5 million in the plan allocated for security updates. Empestan said that such policies and certain security had been shown to have a negative impact on students of color, students with disabilities and students in the LGBTQ community. Empestan said that the groups recognized that the BOE and Ficarra had done “good work” in the past for these communities and asked them to continue to keep those communities in mind.

Village Green followed up with Elizabeth Baker on the sports fields and security issues via email after the meeting and received the following reply:

With respect to Ritzer and the lighting I clarified later in the meeting that we are looking to get estimates the cost of the Ritzer work and, if that goes well, it can be added in December to the LRFP submission and BSE consideration.  How we fund the work is a different question though. Given that Ritzer couldn’t be started until after the rest of the HS project is completed, there was discussion late in the meeting that by that time we may also be in a position to have built up capital reserves fund from the energy and other savings we will be realizing. So, depending on the price tag, we may be able to do the work from capital reserve and not bonding. If we do need to bond we will need BSE approval.
With respect to the security enhancements – I respect and share the concern that the schools be welcoming and inclusive but I think that there was some last minute confusion about the capital work in part because of coincidental timing of the model Strauss Esmay security policies that were originally on for consideration last night.  
The largest item in the security capital bucket is to construct more state of the art entrance ways at older schools that don’t currently have the double doors or viable space for effective visitor screening. These are all best practice measures recommended by NJ School Boards that the community wanted us to implement rather consider an SRO and which were part of all the community presentations going back to last spring. And these entrance ways will not our make our schools seem like prisons. Several of our elementary schools have already improved their entrance ways. The protective film on the glass is another best practice measure that serves a myriad of safety needs and which is not obtrusive, and will not change the character or climate of our schools. I think the comments by the Marshall parent last night about the break ins that occurred there underscore the need to enhance school security in ways this are unobtrusive and educationally appropriate. 
We will be reaching out to the community members who expressed concern to walk through what is being contemplated and what isn’t in an effort to reduce the confusion.

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