METUCHEN — Facing the inevitable growth of the downtown area, the Board of Education is in the midst of contemplating how to prepare the district for the development in the next five to 10 years.
EI Associates, a Cedar Knolls-based architectural design and engineering firm, presented a district wide feasibility study, which laid out suggestions on whether or not to keep the status quo – making no changes to the district’s four buildings, adding onto the existing buildings and/or building a brand new middle school.
“We are forced to make tough decisions in our postage stamp sized town with limited space,” said board member Ben Small, who chairs the board’s Finance and Facilities Committee.
Small said their most important task as a board is to make sure the environment that they provide their students is safe and clean.
“We constantly monitor conditions to our buildings, our enrollment and how projections to our enrollment look like,” he said. “Over the past 5 to 6 years, we have noticed some increases in our enrollment.”
Small said those increased class sizes were in Campbell Elementary School and have now moved to Edgar Middle School.
“The administration and building principals have done a terrific job of being creative with space making [all the while] making sure we still provide a conductive environment for learning,” he said.
Small said due to the growth, it is prudent for the board to seek outside expertise on how to move forward in addressing the district’s physical capabilities of a potential expansion and zoning environments for additional space at the district’s four building locations.
The initial step is the district-wide feasibility study, which cost the board $9,000. Small said the immediate step after is hiring a demographer, which he said is in the bidding process.
Thomas Andrasz, Richard Scheick and Michael Wozny, of EI Associates, presented their feasibility study for the board and public at a Board of Education meeting in May.
Wozny said the purpose of the feasibility study was to identify current enrollment, review district enrollment trends and district growth, review current facilities, identify school facility issues and limitations, and identify potential options for current enrollment and future growth.
Currently the four district buildings — Moss Elementary School, Campbell Elementary School, Edgar Middle School and Metuchen High School — have a total student population of 2,229 as of April 2017.
The optimal capacity range in all the school buildings is between 2,180 to 2,310 students.
“What’s really telling is the [optimal capacity range],” Wozny said adding that they received input from the building principals on what the ideal capacity would be in each of their buildings.
Scheick said through their analysis, they came up with seven options, which they said can be mixed and matched and what school officials think is a best fit for the district.
The options include moving grades between Moss Elementary, Campbell Elementary and Edgar Middle and moving the existing board offices from Moss Elementary School to Metuchen High School.
Other options include additions to Moss Elementary, Campbell Elementary and Metuchen High School as well as the construction of a new middle school.
“Edgar Middle School has the most restrictions,” Scheick said.
He said the major restrictions are due to the utility lines that run through the area and wetlands on one side of the school.
Scheick said after going through their report, the district has to identify enrollment demographics, identify district programs, current and future, identify district needs, implement programs and district enrollment, define facility use of expansions, develop a direction and select district options for current and future growth.
Wozny said when they do feasibility studies they like to project five years out. By doing that, he said it allows the district to become eligible for potential funding from the New Jersey Department of Education.
He said the school district should look out five years and beyond. He said officials need to discuss the need for a land purchase whether it is needed now or in five years.
“You can see how just planning for the next five years can be taxing on existing sites,” he said.
Wozny said some districts decide on building a primary center for preschool, kindergarten and first grades.
“The advantage is that the district does not have to look for land with a ball field attached to it,” he said.
Wozny said if the board were to agree on a plan now, the whole process, including a referendum, would take up to three years.
After a referendum is approved, a bid process would take about four months and then after the bid is awarded it would take about two months before a shovel would go into the ground.
“Depending on the scope of work it would be 12 to 18 months of construction,” Wozny said adding that the district is looking forward to occupancy by September 2020.
Board President Dan Benderly said the report does not factor in operating costs; however, Small said the report does factor in the implementation of full-day kindergarten and a science lab wing at the high school, which had been previously discussed by the board.
“Before we spend significant dollars, we want to make sure to make an intelligent decision,” Small said.
Just like previous referendums, the most recent in 2005 to Metuchen High School, Small said key stakeholders including Parent Teacher Organizations, teachers, the mayor and Borough Council and other members of the public will be involved in the process.