Monroe foresees new schools to serve rising enrollment

By KATHY CHANG
Staff Writer

MONROE — Construction of an addition onto the high school as well as the building of a new elementary school and middle school may be on the horizon as school officials address student enrollment growth in the next five to 10 years.

Monroe Schools Superintendent Michael Kozak presented the recommended plan to the Board of Education on July 27, which he said was the culmination of a year of work involving a number of stakeholders including the Student Growth Advisory Committee, school officials, students, police officials, the township Recreation Department, parents, teachers, residents, the public and more.

“We looked at all possibilities of school configurations,” Kozak said. “Any ways to address both short-term and long-term needs of the school district as the student population continues to grow.”

The high school population is currently over capacity of what the Monroe Township High School on Schoolhouse Road was built for, school officials said.

“Based on our demographer’s report and based on all the other information, we are looking to hit the top number of 3,000 students in this high school anywhere in between five to 10 years, maybe even 15 years,” Kozak said. “The recommendation is for an addition to the high school, very similar to what [the South Brunswick School District] has done.”

Kozak said during their research they visited South Brunswick, where school officials provided them with procedures that worked and what they learned once the new addition was built.

“Some of the hallways were not wide enough from the bridge going from the addition to the main building,” he said.

Kozak said a plan for an addition to Monroe High School was already designed on the footprint of the building when it was erected a few years ago.

“Well, the need arose,” Kozak said. “We are here.”

The superintendent said school officials have also talked to superintendents from East Brunswick and North Brunswick on how those districts dealt with enrollment growth over the past 10 years, with those district high schools already seeing enrollment growth reaching 3,000 students.

“We wanted to see what they did with their elementary school and middle school buildings,” he said.

The second part of the proposed plan is to repurpose Applegarth Elementary School on Applegarth Road into administrative offices.

“This will not happen right away, but we heard many concerns about the age of Applegarth, built in 1932,” said Kozak.

By repurposing Applegarth, the district would not incur any cost. It would save the district $70,000 a year in lease fees for housing special education administrators, officials said.

With that, the proposed plan calls for building a new 900-student elementary school and a new 1,000-student middle school on approximately 65 acres of land on Northwind Court and Mount Road, expected to be transferred over by the township.

Kozak said the land is valued at $7-$10 million, which he said would provide a huge savings for the district.

He said the rationale for the new elementary school and new middle school is what the demographer has stressed in its report: address the need for student enrollment growth, and based on the demography study the bulk of the new housing would occur within the next five years.

“So it is in our best interest to act now to prepare for that rate of growth,” Kozak said, noting that anything beyond 15 years is extremely hard to predict. “[In any case] we feel that the plan we are presenting to the board addresses educational needs of our students for the next 10-15 years, and we believe it will be done in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Kozak said he realizes the plan calls for a lot of building.

“It is certainly not a position I want to be in, but it is a reality, and we have to deal with it,” he said, noting that construction of development in the township is going on right now. “The alternative that we have is leasing trailers, and the district has gone through that, costing the district millions of dollars. We would like to avoid that if we can because you don’t get anything for the lease.”

The Board of Education approved a resolution at the meeting to approve a $13,000 professional services contract to Edwards Engineering Group Inc., of Somerville, to conduct a feasibility study on approximately 65.4 acres of land that is expected to be transferred to the school district from the township. The resolution also states that officials will work on preparing a referendum for the addition to the high school and the construction of the new elementary and middle schools.

“The resolution offers a framework of a concept idea,” said School Business Administrator Michael Gorski. “The initial step is the Edwards Engineering recommendation that will determine if the plan developed by administration is feasible, and that the land can sustain two buildings on its property, and if any other issues that we should be aware of could hinder that plan.”

Gorski said the resolution identifies that the district has 1,900 housed students and has 1,550 students projected to enroll within the next five years.

“That will leave 2,550 students unhoused and over the next 10 years, [the student population] will grow from there, adding another 1,000 on top of that,” he said. “It is imperative at this juncture because a lot of time has passed with the succession of superintendents, the ad hoc process to now engaging actual pre-referendum planning. That is what the resolution is intended to do, provide some framework to collaborate with the board and other professionals to refine this plan to something more functional and clear.”

Gorski said if everything goes as planned with voter approval and bidding for construction of the schools, at the very earliest the schools would be constructed by September 2020.

Some residents brought up concerns over environmental testing, the need to spend $13,000 and traffic in the area of the 65-acre property.

Gerald Tague, director of Facilities for the district, said Edwards Engineering Group is a civil design firm.

“If during the research they determine additional soil testing needs to be done, they would help us solicit proposals from testing [laboratories] to have that testing done,” he said.

He said other soil testing would be done down the road on groundwater and to determine structural stability of the soil.

Tague said once the land is deemed suitable to be built upon, the district has to follow a stringent regulatory checklist by the New Jersey Department of Education for the land acquisition process.

Gorski said the district has more than $100,000 budgeted in an account reserved for funds for engineering, traffic, bond counsel and an architect for the proposed plan.

“The expense of $13,000 is minuscule in my opinion to the total cost of the project. Interest rates are at a historic low, and we’re planning to see [an additional] 1,000 in-house students pretty soon,” he said. “If the plan doesn’t go in accordance to our timeline, we would be looking at drastic consequences. … Time is not on our side here in the process.”

As for concerns about traffic, Gorski said as the area exists now, the area’s two-lane roads are not suitable to serving the two schools.

“We have spoken with township officials who plan on widening the roads to make the roads suitable for traffic of two schools and whatever exists in that area,” he said. “We are fortunate we are in an area that traffic flows through a niche in a corner not a thoroughfare. There’s not a lot of traffic like it [that] exists at many other schools [in the township].”

School officials said the staggered times when elementary and middle school students arrive at school would also help with traffic flow.

Gorski said since the district does not own the piece of land as of yet, officials are drafting a letter of intent to the township for the land acquisition.

School officials will present projected costs to build the new schools at a board meeting Aug. 31.

Board President Steven Riback said he looks forward to working with township officials, adding that the school district and elected officials have a positive relationship.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@gmnews.com.