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South Orange - Maplewood Board of Education Grapples with Capital Spending

David Lieberfarb

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 • 7:00am

MAPLEWOOD, NJ - It's all about priorities.  The South Orange/Maplewood Board of Education opened Monday night's meeting with a discussion of its capital plan for the next decade. Representatives of EI Associates presented a number of options that varied in cost.

Among the considerations are an anticipated increase in district enrollment of at least 300 students in the next five years, and another 400 by 2024-25. The main focus for many community members Monday night was on Columbia High School and its swimming pool, which was out of commission during this school year.
 
This evoked a series of impassioned comments by members of the swim team, represented by David Cutler of South Orange, team captain, who has volunteered to help teach other youngsters how to swim. Citing a report that 30 percent of incoming students don't know how to swim, he called it "an important life skill."
 
His coach, Maggie Singler, a 1997 Columbia graduate, said a new pool would generate revenue from other communities who "all want to rent pool space."
 
Parents chimed in, citing the possibility of partnerships with the YMCA or other community groups. Sue Goodman of Maplewood, whose son Michael is a two-year varsity swimmer, said, "I am a swim parent," adding that an improved pool "would generate significant demand."
 
On the other hand, Walter Fields of Maplewood suggested that the emphasis on the pool shouldn't be allowed to overshadow the gymnasium. "We need to look expansively and creatively at all our athletic facilities," he said.
 
Board President Beth Daugherty made a special point of thanking the swim team for their perseverance this year.
 
Back to the priorities. Tom Andrasz of EI Associates laid out a number of multi-million-dollar options for dealing with Columbia's changing needs. He offered a few suggestions for creating more efficient use of space in the school, including grouping science program areas and gaining classroom space by eliminating computer labs, since powerful hand-held computers have become commonplace.
 
Then came the five options.
 
Option 1 featured eliminating the pool altogether and using the space for classrooms at an estimated cost of about $5.9 million.
 
Option 2 called for revamping the Adminstration Building adjacent to the main high school building. Ten classrooms could be created at a cost of about $10 million.
 
Option 3 involved the construction of a new six-lane pool and fitness center. The 18,000-square-foot addition would cost about $12.5 million and could be combined with Option 1 for new classrooms.
 
Option 4 was a scaled-down version of Option 3, about 12,000 square feet with a price tag in excess of $8 million.
 
Option 5 was also a more modest proposal: the construction of either five or 10 classrooms alongside the exisiting school.
 
Besides questions about cost, these options could also take a bite out of either the parking area or the athletic field, or both.  Among the school's other needs are roofs, windows and an upgrade of the electrical equipment.
 
In other news:
 
The board recognized achievements of dozens of students and teachers -- from high schoolers who scored 800 on their SATs to musicians, singers and athletes. Among the outstanding achievements, Jack Woods, a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary School, won a gold medal at the National Fencing Championships. Jack is ranked number one in the nation in the Youth 12 Years and Under Men's Foil Division.
 
Several members of the Columbia track team turned out to hear accolades for teammates Sydney Scruggs and Olivia Baker, among others. Scruggs, a senior, captured the 100-meter hurdles at the Meet of Champions, clocking 14.15 seconds. At another meet, he became the only runner in the state to break 14 seconds this year.
 
Baker, a junior, made state history by winning four gold medals at the Meet of Champions  -- the first athlete, boy or girl, to do so in the 40-year history of the meet. She won three individual races, the 100 meters, 200 meters and 400 meters and was part of the winning 4-x-400-meter relay squad.
 
A few negative notes at the meeting involved complaints about crime and student safety. Connor Frey, an eighth-grader at Maplewood Middle School, told the board the school was suffering from a crime wave. Frey had reported three thefts. He also said the frustration of reporting the crimes and getting very little response made him feel doubly victimized.
 
A Marshall School parent complained about a severe shortage of subsitute teachers, and another parent said her 8-year-old  was fearful every day.
 
Contract negotiations brought out a pair of teachers who accused the board of having an "anti-union animus" and not appreciating the efforts of the teaching staff.
 
The board is scheduled to meet this summer on July 15 and Aug. 19.
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