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Edison BOE will ask public support for $189.5 million referendum to address overcrowding

EDISON – With students literally learning in closets and trailers and eating lunch in classrooms, the need for more space in the Edison Public Schools is evident – sooner rather than later.

That is why the Edison Board of Education will ask for public support of a $189.5 million referendum on Dec. 10. School officials said the referendum will provide the necessary additional space to the six neediest schools in the district – John P. Stevens High School, Edison High School, John Adams Middle School, James Madison Intermediate, and John Marshall and Lincoln elementary schools – not only to fix the overcrowding issues now, but for future generations to come.

Polls will open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Overcrowding in school district

Currently, the Edison Public Schools, which has 19 buildings – two high schools, four middle schools, nine elementary schools, one intermediate school, one primary school, and the operation of a preschool program – has 2,919 students without a seat.

“When thinking of a number that large, we think about a size of a high school,” Jennifer Fisher, supervisor of 21st century skills, said. “That’s actually the number of students in our district that are without a seat right now, these students who are eating lunch in the classrooms, students that are having instruction in closets, in the hallways, and being served food in the hallways.”

The school buildings are on average 70 years old, there are 17 outdoor trailers in use, five classrooms have been converted from closets, and there are two hallway classrooms, school officials said.

Fisher said because of the capacity issues, students are not allowed to carry backpacks, are sandwiched like sardines in the halls and have only four minutes to get from class to class.

“You do not want to get caught in the hallway during passing,” she said.

Fisher along with Margaret Contaldi, acting superintendent of schools, Jeanne Perantoni, principal and CEO of SSP Architects, Bridgewater, Gail Pawlikowski, chief academic officer and secondary administrator, and Schools Business Administrator Dan Michaud, presented the referendum at two public hearings on Oct. 29 and Oct. 30.

For a year, Perantoni said she and her team have been living and breathing the Edison Public Schools calling the “sheer magnitude” of the district “overwhelming.”

In November 2018, the board charged SSP Architects with preparing a long-range facilities plan and in March 2019, Perantoni proposed a referendum to address the severely overcrowded needs of the district. Since then Perantoni and the board has been refining a cost effective referendum package to present to the public. 

“Right now you are currently over capacity,” Perantoni said. “In other words the amount of space and facilities, classrooms and space around every table and chair is inadequate for the number of students, which is verified from a formula the state Department of Education provides us with regulations.”

Perantoni said not only are the school facilities congested in the classrooms, but there is congestion in the hallways and in the assembly spaces.

“Congestion really impacts delivery of educational services and that’s the reason why capacity is so important,” she said, adding inadequate services in the schools could really affect property values in the community.

Perantoni said their plan coincides with the demographic/enrollment projection study, which was updated earlier this year. In 2012, the student population total was 14,432 student, in 2018, the student population size increased to 16,318 students.

In January, George Sundell, principal demographer of Sundance Associates, based in Cherry Hill, presented the district’s demographic/enrollment projection study. He said the biggest capacity problems will be at James Madison Intermediate, John Marshall, and Lincoln elementary schools.

Sundell said over a 10 year period the district’s students increased 13% whereas the facilities increased approximately 2%.

“You can see there was a gap serving that critical period of growth,” Perantoni said.

Proposed expansions, renovations and alterations to six schools

Fisher, who is a J.P. Stevens alum, said the referendum would allow the district to transform their classrooms into real 21st century learning spaces akin to the Google offices in New York City where students can collaborate, problem solve, pull small groups together, use flexible seating and teachers can use best practices to meet the needs of every student.

The proposed referendum calls for 96 new classrooms, 11 science labs and 15 specialized instruction rooms.

At J.P. Stevens, the proposal includes a net gain of 33 instructional classrooms, six new science labs, three physical education stations, a relocated, expanded media center, expanded parking lot, and new turf fields for softball, lacrosse and soccer.

At Edison High School, the proposal includes renovations to the auditorium, reconfiguration of offices for administration, child study teams and a career and readiness wing, and media center.

At John Adams Middle School, the proposal includes eight new classrooms, two science labs, a music orchestra room, an auxiliary gym, a new administration wing, and some expanded parking.

At James Madison Intermediate, the proposal includes nine new classrooms, two music rooms, two small group instruction classrooms, a multipurpose gym with stage, kitchen and offices.

At John Marshall, the proposal includes six general classrooms, one special education classroom, one small group instruction classroom, guidance office, child study team officers, conference room, expanded principal’s office, support spaces, a security station at ungraded entry and a secured entrance vestibule.

At Lincoln Elementary, which Perantoni said is “supremely over capacity,” the proposal includes renovations and improvements for support spaces, a secure vestibule, eight classrooms, one classroom conversion, one small group instruction classroom, one multipurpose gym and stage, and a net gain of 30 to 40 parking spaces with circulation improvements.

Financing

The district is proposing to issue a 30-year bond for the funding of the $189.5 million referendum. The state has agreed to contribute just over $31 million towards the costs of the project contingent on the passing of the proposal.

The state contribution will be in the form of debt service aid, which will be in the amount of 40% of the final eligible costs of the projects – $77.71 million. The local shares of the projects may be transferred between the projects.

For an average home assessed value of $179,000, the tax impact will be $18.67 per month.

Previous referendums

For the past 20 years, the district and previous boards of educations have tried to keep pace with the township’s rate of growth and ongoing housing turnovers with seven referendums from April 2002 to March 2015. Voters have only approved two of the seven referendums.

Michaud said voters approved a $12.2 million referendum in in April 2002, which put additions on all the schools and added full day kindergarten. In 2015, voters approved a $18.6 million referendum to rebuild James Monroe Elementary school, which was burned down in 2014.

Previous failed referendums included a $51 million referendum for additions and renovations to 11 schools in September 2005; a $79.8 million referendum for additions and renovations to various schools in April 2007; a $57 million referendum for a new school and additions at three schools in April 2008 and December 2008; and a $166.7 million referendum, which had two questions for additions on all the schools, in January 2010.

Michaud noted when Governor Chris Christie came into office in 2010 and cut 5% of the district’s budget, it resulted in the loss of full day kindergarten.

Perantoni said the current board has already moved forward with some pressing overcrowding needs for 10 new classrooms at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, which was approved in March and the addition to nine new classrooms at FDR Early Learning Center.

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