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State authority approves plan to build new school in Pleasantville

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Decatur School

Pleasantville Public Schools is in talks with the state Schools Development Authority to build a new school on the site of the old Decatur Avenue School. The engineer the district has consulted recommends the current building be demolished and replaced, as it would be $2.5 million less expensive than making the needed renovations. 

Our Lady Star of The East Church in Pleasantville hosted its 10th annual Lebanese Festival on Saturday. Video by Matthew Strabuk, for The Press.

PLEASANTVILLE — The state Schools Development Authority has approved a proposal to build a new school on Decatur Avenue for children in pre-K to fifth grade.

Acting Superintendent Karin Farkas touted the news during a Board of Education meeting Tuesday night. She said district officials worked with the district’s engineers to develop a long-range facilities plan for the project, which she hopes will go up for school board approval during next month’s meeting.

The Decatur Avenue project was one of 16 across 13 school districts that the SDA approved at its Board of Directors meeting Sept. 7. The board approved three additional projects in April. Authority CEO Manuel Da Silva said the new projects reflected the Murphy administration’s commitment to expanding educational resources.

“It is our job to ensure New Jersey’s young scholars have equitable access to outstanding school buildings that will allow them to learn, thrive and succeed as they embark on a lifetime of learning,” Da Silva said Sept. 8 in a news release. “The administration’s investment toward the improvement of New Jersey’s educational infrastructure has allowed this board to advance projects that will address critical needs in districts throughout New Jersey.”

The new school is needed to grow the Pleasantville school district’s physical capacity to run school programs, Farkas said last month, asserting “we desperately need space in our schools.”

SDA officials have a similar perspective, saying the authority’s new agenda was about addressing overcrowding in school districts across the state.

“The board’s approval of these projects, identified in the SDA’s Statewide Strategic Plan as priority projects, will significantly reduce district-wide overcrowding and facility deficiencies that impact thousands of students statewide,” SDA Chairman Robert Nixon said. “These projects will deliver thousands of new or replacement student seats in state-of-the-art facilities that will foster learning and student achievement.”

Emails forwarded to The Press of Atlantic City indicate conversations between Pleasantville school officials and the SDA about building a new school at Decatur Avenue began in 2019 and were revived in 2021. Superintendent Natakie Chestnut-Lee described the challenges facing the district in a letter sent to the SDA on March 4, 2021. She said in the letter the current district facilities were inadequate to serve students, citing repairs that were needed at Pleasantville Middle School and High School and a malfunctioning heating and air conditioning system at the North Main Street School. The district, she said, was “not well-positioned to make the required investments.”

“The existing facilities in the district do not provide the high-quality learning environment that our students deserve,” Chestnut-Lee said in the letter. She has since been put on leave by the Pleasantville school board, which in turn appointed Farkas acting superintendent.

The district had previously explored having the Decatur Avenue building house pre-K and the district’s business office. Board of Education President Jerome Page said during the Aug. 9 meeting that he would have liked to see parts of Pleasantville Middle School currently used by the business office be made available to students and have the business office relocated to Decatur Avenue. Farkas said the SDA officials expressed their preference that a new building be used for pre-K to fifth-grade students.

The SDA approved several other projects in South Jersey, including renovations within the Bridgeton Public Schools.

It had been an open question as to whether the district would simply renovate the current building or demolish it and build a replacement. Remington & Vernick Engineers has toured the Decatur Avenue property and studied what renovations would be required to rehabilitate the facility. The firm laid out its findings to the school board Aug. 9. It ultimately estimated that rehabilitating the building — which would involve improvements to the HVAC system, structural improvements and changes to the plumbing system — would cost $12 million. The firm’s total estimated cost to the district for demolishing and replacing the building was only $9.5 million, meaning the latter option would save the district $2.5 million.

The state Legislature allocated $1.9 billion to the SDA in the fiscal year 2023 budget to support the authority’s 2022 Strategic Plan. The majority of that money, $1.55 billion, would be reserved for projects in SDA districts — a set of 31 school districts that meet certain criteria regarding socioeconomic need. The remaining $350 million would fund projects in other districts. Projects were selected based on the level of educational and facilities needs, alongside “efficient construction factors,” the SDA said. The selection was also influenced by enrollment data and the state’s Educational Facilities Need Assessment. Officials from the SDA and state Department of Education met with each of the 31 SDA districts to identify high-priority needs, according to the news release.

Pleasantville Public Schools is the only SDA district in Atlantic County. The Bridgeton, Millville and Vineland school districts in Cumberland County also are SDA districts, and there are no SDA districts in Cape May County.

The Sept. 8 news release indicated the 16 new projects will become part of the SDA program portfolio once the gubernatorial veto period expires Sept. 22.

Farkas said the district and SDA were set to meet again to discuss the issue later this month.

Contact Chris Doyle

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