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Edison BOE will discuss proposal to end overcrowding in schools on April 26

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EDISON – A proposal is on the table to essentially “begin to end” the overcrowding issues in the Edison Township School District and address the dire needs of the district’s aging school buildings.

The Board of Education (BOE) is expected to discuss and possibly move forward a proposal, which does not include going out to a referendum and does not cost anything to the taxpayer, at a meeting on April 26.

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Schools Superintendent Bernard Bragen presented the proposal at a Committee of the Whole meeting on March 30. He said the plan was put forth with much discussion from building principals and staff.

“We believe with this plan in a short period of time we’re able to achieve that goal [to end overcrowding],” he said, noting the pandemic distracted the district from the overcrowding issues that has plagued the township for more than a decade.

“Come September this year, we were back to overcrowding,” he said. “Back to [John P.] Stevens [High School] having 2,600 to 2,700 students in the building. Back to our Woodrow Wilson [Middle] School to over 1,200 students and when you deal with that problem over a daily basis it comes back in your face. This has an immediacy that can no longer be denied.”

He said the district is now in triage mode attempting to stop hemorrhaging from eight parts of the body.

Portable classrooms have been a way to accommodate the overcrowding in schools over the years, officials said.

Bragen said he believes the proposed plan “will provide all our children with the optimal educational program to which they are entitled.”

Full-day kindergarten, which will begin in the fall, will send the student population over the current 17,500 students.

In addition, with construction costs continuing to rise, it’s a plan that’s better to begin sooner than later, Bragen said.

Proposal

The proposal is separated into phases. Phase one includes priorities of J.P. Stevens High, all four middle schools – Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – James Madison Intermediate and John Marshall Elementary School.

Phase two includes Edison High School, four elementary schools – Benjamin Franklin, Washington, Lindeneau, and Martin Luther King – and James Madison Primary School.

Bragen said the district used data already gathered to identify where the needs are in the district from the two previous failed referendums and have estimated costs higher than the costs that may come in.

Ten classroom spaces are proposed for James Madison Intermediate and John Marshall at $7.5 million each.

A gym/auditorium estimated at $3.5 million each is proposed for James Madison Intermediate, John Marshall, Washington, Lindeneau, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison Primary and Martin Luther King.

In addition, a kitchen, which will be funded through separate funds, is proposed for James Madison Primary.

“At the middle schools, there are more children and staff in [the gymnasium] than there should be,” he said. “Having an additional large group area at all our middle schools is very important and much needed.”

The gym/auditorium is estimated at $3.5 million for each of the four middle schools.

Thomas Jefferson is also in need of a school entrance and office suite estimated at $1 million each. Bragen called the area nothing short of “disgusting” and lacking “curb appeal.”

“We are trying to run a professional organization,” he said.

John Adams is also in need of 10 classroom spaces estimated at $7.5 million.

At Edison High School, 10 classroom spaces are proposed estimated at $10 million. At JP Stevens, an auditorium estimated at $5 million, 30 classrooms estimated at $17 million and a turf field estimated at $2 million are proposed.

The total cost for the entire project at the schools is estimated at $93.5 million.

Funding

Bragen said the district proposes to utilize a number of funding sources. It has been fortunate to be on the plus side of state aid in recent years, which has allowed the tax levy to remain at $235.01 million over the past three years.

“[The increase in state aid] gives us opportunity to do things we wanted to do,” he said.

As of June 30, 2021, the capital reserve account balance totals $25 million. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds established as part of the Coronavirus Aid Relief totals $7 million.

Capital funds in the next three budget years for building projects totals $9.5 million each.

The total available funds total $60.5 million. The remaining balance will then total $33 million.

For the remaining balance, the district proposes to lease $25 million over five years at $5.5 million from annual capital outlay – $9.5 million – for each year, or $15 million for the first three years; $8 million from the annual budget for 2024-25 school year, or $13.5 million, and for the last year of the lease – 2025-26 school year – the total capital outlay for the projects is proposed at $5.5 million.

The total cost over the five-year span including financing costs is estimated at $96 million. After year five of the lease, Bragen said the district is expected to have no debt.

The district has annual capital funds – over $19 million a year – allocated to do capital infrastructure projects every year, which he said is necessary to remain proactive in the upkeep of the school buildings built in the 1950s.

“For more than a year, [the capital funds have] been used for the Lincoln [Elementary School] addition project,” Bragen said, adding the funds can be used on an annual basis.

Every year, the district has allocated about $4 million in its budget for the annual upkeep of things, which include bathroom renovations; classroom/laboratory upgrades; door replacements; driveway/parking lots/sidewalk repairs; roof replacements; and desks/furniture/Smartboard/device upgrades.

The proposed plan is expected to use energy savings to fund the purchase of new equipment such as boilers, univents; lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning and solar.

The district is currently considering the best of two options to begin the process. It allows the district to replace old and inefficient energy equipment for new more efficient items at no cost to the taxpayers, Bragen said.

“The funds for the annual upkeep of things will remain basically a mortgage for five years without going to referendum,” he said, noting the district is permitted to do that for a five-year duration.

Preschool

Alongside the priority of the school buildings, Bragen said they will look at expansions for the preschool (four-year-olds) at possibly the Our Savior’s Church property adjacent to Menlo Park Elementary School, which the board purchased last year and/or the Stelton School on Plainfield Avenue.

The expansion for the three-year-olds will come after.

With the district’s full-day kindergarten initiative in September, the district is projecting an additional 800 students in kindergarten. The district expects to realize $4 million in state aid because of the increase of kindergarten students.

The preschool population could see as many as 2,400 students, which could include children who were homeschooled during the pandemic, Bragen said.

“We have 1,200 students in a grade level now, which are entering into the first and second grades,” he said. “Our biggest grades now are about 1,300-1,350 students … I don’t envision that being in one space and I don’t see our elementary space immediately having room for those children.”

He said the Our Savior’s Church property and Stelton School property give the district options as well as some vacant properties in the township in which the district could possibly rent spaces and convert into preschool areas.

“We would just pay a rental fee,” Bragen said, adding with no capital cost for the district and getting the vacant property back on the tax rolls, it’s a win-win for everybody.

In addition, there are also preschool expansion funds throughout the nation and specifically for New Jersey.

“We could possibly do this at no additional cost to district,” Bragen said. “At least no staffing cost. We may have additional renovation costs.”

Timeline

Once the board approves to proceed on the proposed plan, the projects will be split equally among the board’s two approved architects, Bragen said.

Plans could be approved and out to bid as early as the summer; contracts awarded by the fall and shovels in ground before winter break of the 2022-23 school year.

The board is expected to discuss the proposal at the next board meeting on April 26 at JP Stevens High School.

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