Part III: Into the 21st Century
Parts I (The Establishment of a 20th Century School District) and II (Approaching the Turn of Another Century in Public Education) of this series took a look at the South Orange-Maplewood school district at three points in the 20th century. Today, I conclude with some snapshots of recent years as the district negotiates both continuity and change.
At the start of the 21st century, Maplewood and South Orange — and the school district — had experienced two decades of gradual demographic change, and the community began to be recognized for diversity. (I will look at this transformation in greater detail in a future blog.) In short, the towns, which had been more than 90% white in 1980, were now about 60% white and 30% black, with small but slowly increasing numbers of Asians and Latinos, a racial and ethnic makeup that continues today. In 2000, the New York Times identified Maplewood as welcoming for gay families. In 2002, Money Magazine named Maplewood as one of the best places in the New York metro area, noting that residents “prized its diversity.” New York Magazine included Maplewood in its 2002 list of 10 affordable suburbs, likewise citing diversity as a draw. In October 2002, Maplewood was recognized at a national conference on racial integration: “Building Blocks for Inclusive Communities” in Cleveland, Ohio.
10 Years Ago:
2002 opened with a familiar set of issues: rising enrollment, rising costs and fierce budget pressures. State funding to the district was flat, at the same level since 1987, with state aid contributing just 14% of the budget, down from 21% a decade earlier. Early budget projections had a 10% increase in view. The headlines tell the story: “School Board Ponders Choices for Budget;” “Guidelines for Informing Budget Development;” “BOE Forced to Make Difficult Cuts.” Even so, the preliminary budget came in with a 7.9% increase. The CBAC (Citizens Budget Advisory Committee) was critical but the budget was unanimously approved by the BSE (Board of School Estimate). The CBAC was even more opposed to a $12 million facilities bond for improvements and repairs, which also passed in September.
Meanwhile, efforts to address the funding problems at the state level made the news. Both towns passed resolutions, asking the Essex County Executive to put a statewide property tax convention referendum on the ballot, but the county rejected the proposal, saying that it was a state, not county issue. In another effort to ease budget pressures, local assemblymen co-sponsored legislation to provide additional funding to “Abbot Rim” districts with significant numbers of free and reduced lunch students.
Although the final budget passed with relative ease, budget strains showed in other ways, particularly at CHS (Columbia High School). Enrollment increases over the decade had reached the high school, which had grown from 1,400 students in 1994, to 1,900 in 2002. The large and rapid increase led to crowding, schedule problems, strained resources, and low morale. In January, the BOE discussed the need to “optimize programs” and explored ideas for renovations at the high school. Rumors of cuts to elective classes circulated. The final budget did include plans to eliminate shop classes and re-use that space for the Black Box theater. Morale was further weakened by a persistent and frustrating series of prank bomb threats, which seriously disrupted classes throughout the spring.
Work conditions at CHS were one issue in contract negotiations with the teachers’ union. Low salaries compared to other districts in the county and the state were another big sticking point. The contract expired in June, with negotiations at an impasse that persisted through the end of the year.
Despite celebrations of diversity, the new racial mix in the schools introduced a new challenge for the district — the racial achievement gap. Awareness of, and interest in, the issue was a national phenomenon as educators and researchers noticed a change in national trends. While racial test gaps had decreased steadily in the post civil rights era of the 1970s and 1980s, that progress stalled, and sometimes reversed through the 1990s. In 2002, SOMSD was showing gaps between black and white students, and between our district and our DFG (District Factor Group). National expert, Ron Ferguson gave a public talk on the issue and met with district leaders.
Also that fall, the BOE discussed residency and registration practices, test scores were stable, (and strong on the new HSPA test for 11th graders), and TV turnoff week piloted at Tuscan Elementary School.
5 Years Ago:
While a variety of tensions at the high school persisted, and contract negotiations with the teachers’ union were once again in an extended stalemate with healthcare contributions an issue, there were new flashpoints at the middle schools.
2007 opened with an announcement by the Maplewood Public Library that it would close daily from 2:45 to 5:00 p.m. beginning in mid-January. The decision was made with “great reluctance” after years of struggling with the problem of unsupervised, and sometimes unruly, middle school students in the after school hours. The move was controversial and led to town-wide discussions, culminating in an emergency meeting on January 14, after which the decision was rescinded and new afterschool programs and spaces were opened for middle schoolers.
At South Orange Middle School (SOMS), the problem was the deteriorating building. Years of deferred maintenance had left it grimy, and in some spots, increasingly damp, leading to mold growth and health concerns, along with low morale. The district ordered testing which did find mold problems, though the molds were not toxic and there were no serious health risks. Nonetheless, by June, SOMS teachers had protested by teaching classes outdoors and the president of the teachers’ union called for the building to be closed due to “deplorable” conditions.
But 2007 brought change at the top. In January, the superintendent announced his resignation and a search began for a new district leader. By April, a new superintendent had been hired, the transition was under way, and the teachers’ contract negotiations finally concluded after two years, with a contract settlement retroactive to 2005.
The new school year started fresh, with a new marquee and a renovated cafeteria at CHS, and thorough cleaning and repairs at SOMS.
Other notes from that year: the CBAC proposed outsourcing custodians and lunch aides; two proposed charter schools that would have included our towns were rejected by the state; and merit pay was approved for administrators.
This long view shows a committed community with high standards, schools with an enduring tradition of excellence, and a district with considerable resilience in the face of financial pressures on schools and taxpayers alike.
The News-Record: 2002, 2007
New York Magazine, October 7, 2002
Money Magazine, December 2002
The New York Times, December 4, 2000 and January 2, 2007
Educational Testing Service, Policy Evaluation and Research.Center. The Black-White Achievement Gap: When Progress Stopped, 2010