Superintendent Kathleen Bodie has explained the possibility of closing the Thompson School temporarily next year because "many of the building's systems are at risk of failing" as well as appointing Thompson Principal Sheri Donovan to lead students at Stratton after Alan Brown retires.
She announced her plan at the Feb. 8 School Committee meeting and discussed it further at Thompson two nights later. At least one parent who attended the meeting at Thompson, Crispin Olsen, expressed concern that if funding for a rebuilt school is not assured, East Arlington may be left with one elementary school.
The evening before the state voted to approve the next step in the Thompson rebuild, Bodie suggested that the School Committee consider the possibility of closing Thompson in the 2011-12 school year.\
-- She told the committee that the school's boiler "could go any time." Should it break down, the cost of a temporary boiler could run as high as $100,000.
-- It would be better to plan for the relocation of Thompson students than to relocate students on an emergency basis. With time to plan, we could likely move students to two or three schools, which was the case when other schools were relocated for construction.
Olsen, who has a daughter in kindergarten at Thompson, offered a different view:
"Whilst I see the financial sense in not wasting taxpayers’ money, currently the Thompson School rebuild has only been approved to move forward to the design stage. Taking a move like closure without the security that the new school is going to be built, there is a very real possibility that the larger half of East Arlington will be without a school for a prolonged period of time, and that is unacceptable.
"Thompson School is the cornerstone of this neighborhood, and a key reason why there has been a steady and significant increase in the kindergarten rolls each year, and a steady rise in the number of young families moving in as replacement for the people who made this neighborhood 50-60 years ago. Without it, we have a dying neighborhood, and that would be a disaster for the whole of the town."
Of the Feb. 10 meeting at Thompson, whose chief purpose was to outline projected reductions among all seven elementary schools in the fiscal 2012 budget, Olsen noted "a lot of concern last night" about a potentially closed Thompson.
In an e-mail Feb. 11, he wrote that "the superintendent wanted to defer any talk about it to next week."
Bodie is scheduled to meet with Thompson parents to express issue with that school on Wednesday, Feb. 16.
Bodie further explained her plans in a letter posted by Brown to the Stratton e-mail list on Sunday, Feb. 13. She wrote:
"I am sure that the news of Alan Brown’s retirement was received with universal sadness. While his retirement will be a great loss for Stratton and the district, we wish him all the best in the next chapter of his life and thank him for his enormous contribution to the district, Stratton, and all the students whose lives have been enriched by his advocacy, wisdom, and care.
"What is also on the minds of staff, parents and students alike is what the process will be to select a new principal for next year. This decision is linked right now to the proposal I made to School Committee last Tuesday to relocate Thompson students to other elementary schools next year in order to prevent further investment in a deteriorating building and to accelerate the construction timeline."
Noting that on Wednesday Feb.9, the Thompson School received approval for new construction from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, she wrote, "Our architects are now at work creating the plans for this new school building. There are several reasons for this proposal to close Thompson at the end of June:
"• Given where we are in the design, approval, and financing process, there is a strong possibility that we will be able to bid the project and begin construction during the 2011-2012 school year, which will in turn allow us to finish the building more quickly.
"• There are many uncertainties about the physical condition of the present building which has deteriorated significantly over the last year. Major building systems, including the roof, boiler, hot water and windows are on their last legs. Keeping the building open for another year runs the risk of requiring major and expensive emergency repairs – and perhaps even relocating students in the middle of the year.
"• As you all know, Arlington is in a significant financial crisis. Both of the rationales above have financial ramifications: beginning and completing construction as soon as possible will help us lock in costs, while closing the current building will prevent the potential major costs of repairs. Closing the building will also generate significant savings in operating costs.
"One of the schools that will receive Thompson students in this proposal is Stratton, which has been a host school many times during past school construction projects. Should this proposal be approved, I am considering the appointment of Sheri Donovan as Interim Principal of Stratton next year. While Ms. Donovan will remain the Principal of Thompson Elementary School during construction and the return to the new building, she could also serve as Interim Principal of Stratton Elementary School next year provided that an administrative assistant, such as an Assistant Principal is provided to support her."
Bodie continued that Donovan has been "a very strong and innovative leader at Thompson, as well as the district. For example, she has been very active in securing grants for Thompson to support the educational program. She supported and helped design a mathematics Response to Intervention (RTI) program for students in grades 3-5 who struggled with math.
"Ms. Donovan holds two masters degrees. One degree is from Harvard Graduate School of Education in Reading and Language, the other is from Tufts University in Child Development. Her undergraduate degree is from Wheelock College. Before coming to Arlington, she was the Principal at two elementary schools in New York City. One of these elementary schools had 650 students.
"Prior to her experience in New York, she was an elementary teacher in Brookline and New Hampshire. I believe that Ms. Donovan can provide the leadership necessary for both Stratton and Thompson next year to continue the high standards of excellence demonstrated at both schools. She will have the complete support of the district and is well-positioned to maintain and promote the record of academic excellence for which Stratton has been recognized at the state and national level."
Bodie wrote that the appointment of an interim principal next year is not intended to be a long-term solution for leadership at Stratton. She said the administration "will likely conduct a search for a permanent leader next year, or possibly the following year depending upon the experience and success of this arrangement."
Officials have said that if all goes according to plans, the new Thompson School would be ready for occupancy for the September 2013 school year. This time frame is subject to final approvals of the state School Building Assistance (MSBA) Board and Town Meeting.
This story was first published at 8:20 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011.