Sharply rising enrollment and shifts in the job market necessitate a $13 million expansion of Morristown High School, which turns 100 in 2018 and has seen no major renovations since Ronald Reagan’s first term, Morris School District officials said on Tuesday.
A four-phase project that starts in June with construction of a three-story, 24,000-square-foot addition was announced last week.
Although the district has been preparing for awhile — adding classrooms to Frelinghuysen Middle School two years ago to accommodate an influx of students–the announcement took some residents by surprise.
So school board President Leonard Posey expanded upon the expansion at Tuesday’s board meeting.
“There’s a misconception out in the public that we’re raising taxes,” Posey said. “We didn’t sneak, we talked about it before. But the lesson learned is we need to communicate more with our constituency, particularly the constituency that does not have kids in our schools.”
According to Posey, interim Superintendent Catherine Mozak, and district Business Administrator Chris Kelly, budget surpluses should cover the first two stages of the project, estimated to cost $9.5 million.
Phase three — renovations to the present building on Early Street — should cost another $2.5 million, Kelly said. Figure another $1 million for the final stage, completion of the new wing’s basement, she said.
The district should absorb those expenses within its 2 percent budget cap, Kelly said.
Auditors recently gave good reviews to the district, according to Mozak and Posey, for four years of surpluses achieved by careful spending and replacement of retired staffers with less expensive young hires.
If necessary, Kelly added, the basement work can be postponed beyond 2018.
JOBS, JAVELINS AND PODS
By that centennial year, the district anticipates enrollment will have grown by 500 students from 2011.
Back in the 20th century, such spikes might have been addressed with shared spaces, split sessions and 45 students per class, Mozak said. But educators now aim for a more manageable 25 students per classroom.
Meanwhile, technology has reshaped the job market. Morristown High needed only one computer lab in the 1990s, Mozak said. Today, MHS has 24 computer-related courses. Plans call for a state-of-the-art technology center and six classrooms in the new wing.
All these factors argued for expansion. “We need the space. We almost need it now,” Mozak said.
Officials sought to dispel rumors that Early Street homes will be knocked down for the expansion, and that the school’s athletic practice field will be unusable.
About 30 percent of the field will become a staging area for construction crews, Mozak acknowledged. But just for two years. During that time, she said, only javelin and discus-throwers may be inconvenienced.
A rental “pod” also may be needed to store marching band equipment during construction, the superintendent said.
State education officials have approved the expansion plans, which await a “courtesy” review by municipal planners in Morristown.
The district also serves students from Morris Township and (for high school only) Morris Plains.
SURPLUSES AND EMPTY-NESTERS
Contrary to what one might surmise, Morristown’s building boom is not sparking the surge in students, Kelly said. Most new units are one- and two-bedroom apartments and condos, which don’t tend to attract families.
Instead, Kelly asserted, the gradual rebound of the housing market finally has encouraged empty nesters to sell their single family homes. And young families are buying them.
“There really appears to be a turnaround in the housing market,” Kelly said.
At the same time, families still feeling the pinch are pulling their kids from private schools and sending them to the district, the business administrator said.
IN OTHER BUSINESS…
The board has narrowed its search for a new superintendent to six candidates, from a field of eight recommended by consultants. Another round of interviews is set for the first week in January, Posey said.
Mozak was hired as a temporary successor to Thomas Ficarra, who retired in October after a dozen years on the job.
The board also announced that the 2015-16 school year will start with classes before Labor Day, on Sept. 3. Five snow days are built into the calendar, with the MHS graduation set for June 22, 2016.