Twenty-eight percent. A whopping 28 percent of students in South Orange and Maplewood do not attend their “zoned” schools, according to the district’s own figures. While that number undoubtedly includes families who have opted to send their children to another school, it’s still a surprising number.

Our two towns continue to grow because they offer a great place to live, and they provide great value for those looking for everything our community has to offer. That means the South Orange-Maplewood School District has to do a better job of planning not only for the growth that has already happened, but also for the next five, 10, 15 years down the road.

It also means that we have to acknowledge the very changing nature of real estate in order to avoid overcrowding in the coming years.

My own family moved to Maplewood three-and-a-half years ago — a bit starry-eyed, like so many other new residents — enchanted by the world of difference between here and our “up-and-coming” Brooklyn neighborhood. (Naturally, that was before we saw the concerning photos of badly needed repairs across the district, and the use of dilapidated, “temporary” trailers as classrooms.)

One of the things we loved about the town, and our new home, was the implicit promise of an elementary school that was a stone’s throw away. I imagined picturesque September strolls as the leaves changed colors. In a letter included in the real estate brochure for our home, the previous owner spoke lovingly of her children’s experience at Clinton Elementary School, and their long community involvement.

Yet, when we went to register up our incoming kindergartner for school, our “zoned” neighborhood school was full. After getting over our initial shock and dismay, we ended up at Marshall Elementary School in South Orange, a six-minute drive or a 12-minute tandem bike ride. Of course, we quickly fell in love with our kindergarten teacher and the school itself.

Speaking to dozens of parents over the past year, I’ve learned that our experience with overcrowding isn’t unique. The better real estate agents I’ve spoken to have also taken to emphasizing that all the schools in the district are solid, rather than selling them on the neighborhood school.

The issue of integration adds another variable to the planning challenges the district will face, whether by implementing some version of the vaguely defined “controlled choice” that gets mentioned so often, or some other process to achieve a demographic balance in each school that resembles the community at large. I don’t have all the answers, but there are some tough choices ahead for the district, not the least of which will likely have to take into account our increase in housing density.

In the past couple of years, Maplewood alone has seen the construction of a 30-unit apartment building at 1701 Springfield Avenue, in addition to “numerous other completed and in-process projects on and near Springfield Avenue in Maplewood, including the Jewelry Mart (33 units), Avalon Maplewood (235 units), 255 Tuscan (30 units) … and a potential 16-unit condominium development at 1866 Springfield Avenue,” according to The Village Green.

While it was true in the past that families generally did not choose to live in apartments over single-family homes, a host of factors has changed the equation: Rising mortgage interest rates, rising home prices and an increased desirability of urban amenities.

  • “Almost all the housing demand in recent years has been filled by rental units,” Sara Strochak, a research assistant with the Urban Institute, told USA Today. She adds that single-family rentals have gone up 30 percent within the last three years.
  • “There has been a fundamental shift in housing preferences here in New Jersey — away from single family homes and towards multi-family housing,” Jeffrey Otteau, president of Otteau Group, an information provider on real estate trends, told My Central Jersey.
  • The number of families with minor children who own their home has decreased by almost 3.6 million in one decade(2006-2016), while the number of families with children living in rentals has increased by 1.9 million over the same period of time, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, RentCafé

While the proportion of families with children living in apartments varies from city to city, it is important that SOMSD recognize the changing nature of our demographics, and of estimating the effects of any possible financial incentives given to developers, including the arrangement known as payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT).

“Known as payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, the long-term agreements can be a valuable tool for municipal-government leaders to stimulate redevelopment in their communities,” writes NJ Spotlight. “But, by design, they can also reduce the amount of overall tax revenue that would otherwise go to the local schools.”

SOMSD does not have a say in such municipal agreements, but it can be more proactive about informing the community about the effects it will have on school funding.

We, as residents of Maplewood and South Orange, deserve the best, most up-to-date information to make the best possible decisions — now and into the future.

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Bruno J. Navarro is a 2018 candidate for one of three seats on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. For more information, please visit NavarroSOMA.com. Follow him on Facebook here.

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