Education

South Orange Maplewood School District Announces $127 Million School Improvement and Grade Realignment Plan

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SOUTH ORANGE AND MAPLEWOOD, NJ - A major $127 million school renovation and reorganization plan for South Orange and Maplewood that would realign grades and schools and include nearly $100 million in upgrades and improvements was unveiled by district officials Monday night, who said the aim was to improve both racial integration and school facilities.

“We think we got it right, but we don’t want to rush into anything,” Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra said after the plan was explained to a crowded school board meeting room. “We want to have a completely integrated district at every level and we cannot accomplish that by keeping the same district lines.”

The proposal includes a change in grade placement at each school that would have the current seven elementary schools convert to kindergarten through fourth grade populations, Maplewood Middle School handle all fifth and sixth grade students, and South Orange Middle School serve seventh and eighth graders.

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Columbia High School would remain ninth through 12th grade, but with planned additional space, including replacing the swimming pool with classroom space and expanding the library.

The change would end the current Jefferson-Marshall configuration in which Marshall classes are Kindergarten through second grade and Jefferson is third grade through fifth grade. Seth Boyden Demonstration School's broad enrollment options would also end.

“We looked at a variety of configurations,” Ficarra said. “This gave us the least-expensive model and the most desirable.” 

He estimated that the grade realignment would require about $34.5 million for expansion of some areas and other facility enhancements for the different grades. In all, the plan would add about 62,000 square feet in additional education space to the schools.

A redistricting plan would also likely be needed, officials said, but the specifics would not be decided until the improvements are made, and none of the grade realignments would take effect until at least the fall of 2020.

Along with the realignment of grades is a proposed $93.1 million capital improvement and renovation plan that would include upgrades and repairs at all schools, Ficarra said.

The tentative plan would include $5.3 million in security improvements, including closed circuit TV devices and “secure vestibules;” $15.1 million in “life safety” projects such as mason and plumbing repairs; $5.6 million in roof improvements, including slate replacements at all but two schools; and $1.1 million for windows.

Another $10.5 million would go to internal bathroom, floor and other renovations; $8.2 in ADA or disability access upgrades, including parking; $1.5 million in site improvements, including new bleachers at Underhill Field and drainage; $3.8 million in electrical upgrades, including new clocks and internal wiring; and the largest amount – $41 million – for heating, ventilation, piping and insulation repairs and replacement.

That brings the total for the grade realignment changes and the capital improvements to about $127 million, which will be raised through bonding, either 20- or 30-year bond loans.

There is also an optional addition of $3.5 million for expanded early childhood education, or pre-school, but it is not part of the official proposed plan.

All of these changes and upgrades come as the district’s population continues to grow with estimates it will reach 7,012 students next year and 7,195 students by 2022-2023.

District officials stressed that no final decisions have been made on the plan, which the school board did not vote on Monday. Several community meetings will be planned during the coming weeks with no plans for any board approval until at least October.

Ficarra said changes can be made as the district reviews the proposal and accepts public input.

“If we can find a cheaper way to do it,” he said. “We will.”

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