By JACQUELINE DURETT
EDISON — The Board of Education’s concerns around overcrowding and funding have been front and center at recent meetings.
The district continues to expand; this year it welcomes 86 new teachers as well as 639 new students, bringing the total enrollment to 15,754 students. At the Sept. 21 meeting, Superintendent Richard O’Malley said the enrollment in the last two months was the largest in a two-month period in his entire tenure. He said the enrollment increase alone would be equivalent to an entire new school in some districts.
The overcrowding issue, O’Malley said, has “continued to put a lot of stress on our organization and some of the decisions that we have to make going forward,” he said.
The board has also been providing updates around the school construction progress. The new James Monroe Elementary School, originally slated to open for the start of this school year, is now set to open Jan. 3, although the construction process should be complete sometime next month. The original building was destroyed by a fire in March of 2014, and students have been attending classes at St. Cecelia’s School in the Iselin section of Woodbridge.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, Business Administrator Daniel Michaud reviewed about $80,000 in change orders related to James Monroe. He pointed out, however, the district has spent about $450,000 in total on change orders, but had allotted $1 million for change orders. The board accepted an insurance settlement last year of $23.6 million; the cost was estimated at the time to be $19.6 million.
Michaud also said the bids from earlier this month for the Woodbrook Elementary School expansion project came in higher than expected — $11 million instead of $8 million. He recommended financing to bridge that gap — a public hearing would be forthcoming.
Board President Frank Heelan pointed out that according to the state, 574 students should be in Woodbrook, but enrollment is close to 1,000.
“This is something we must do. We have to find a way to finance it to be able to expand the school,” he said.
The board reported that the Menlo Park Elementary School classroom expansion was complete, but the gymnasium should be complete in early November.
The board is also taking steps to advocate for receiving the full amount of state aid under the current law. Heelan said the district is currently being shorted $10 million in additional aid, as it is anticipating just over $14 million for the 2016-2017 school year.
In August, the board approved a resolution requesting the state fully fund the district. As part of the board’s advocacy efforts, member Theresa Ward has been tasked with updating the public about the funding issue.
Ward said at the Sept. 21 meeting that she recently attended a New Jersey School Boards Association meeting in which the school funding issue was discussed. She said officials there said that fixing the problems with the state aid formula will take time — a luxury she said the district does not have.
“We don’t have time, our schools are bursting at the seams,” she said.