Officials, parents juggle enrollment puzzle pieces, including time squeeze

UPDATED: The discussion about how to address expanding school enrollment continued Thursday, March 10, as parents reflected support for both the Gibbs option as well as tenants, the School Committee struggled with a timeline and all worked to see how the puzzle pieces might fit.

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The upshot of the six-week time squeeze to receive data about school options likely means that a ballot question to deal with money issues cannot occur in June but might be later in the summer.

At the March 8 enrollment task force meeting, officials hoped to hear back from HMFH of Cambridge about interim estimates for various options in four weeks. School Committee members Cindy Starks and Bill Hayner at the March 10 School Committee meeting both referred to a six-week time frame for a final report. The date is important as the task force hope to have estimates before Town Meeting, which starts April 25, or six weeks away.

Decisions before debt exclusion

The date that numbers are known has an impact on task-force and School Committee decisions about various options. Those decisions must be made before the public faces a debt-exclusion, or a tax increase under a ballot question, officials decided March 10.

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"Assuming it's Gibbs, a decision about which grade [configuration to use] has an urgency when we get into design phase."
      -- Kathleen Bodie

Asked about the reports' timing, Starks wrote March 11 that HMFH, the Cambridge architectural firm that is providing the estimates, says the process will take six weeks. At the task force-meeting, the request was to get an update in three to four weeks from HMFH to see how things are going.

the reports will detail the relative costs of the two middle-school options -- reconstruction of the former Gibbs and new addition to the Ottoson -- as well as the cost of the Thompson expansion.

Noting the time frame, Hayner expressed concern about when a debt exclusion would be held.

Kirsi Allison-Ampe wanted to know whether options proposed for Ottoson are "comparing apples to apples."

Jennifer Susse said with respect to the option to renovate the former Gibbs School, "which is looking likely, we have to decide the model that goes in there."

Bodie offers balance

Superintendent Kathleen Bodie balanced some key pieces of the puzzle: "Assuming it's Gibbs," she said, "a decision about which grade [configuration to use] has an urgency when we get into design phase." She said they would not begin that step until funding numbers are known.

Committee Chair Paul Schlichtman said he put this issue of the March 10 agenda "to scope out options." As he has in the past, he cited a "sense of urgency" to proceed.

The only vote he said he expects between now and late June is to take the former Gibbs out of reserve. That means releasing it to allow it to be returned for classroom use.

Hayner asked Bodie to estimate operating costs at the former Gibbs and at Ottoson. She said she had already worked out preliminary numbers on that.

After a back-and-forth discussion about timing, the committee appeared to reach a consensus -- that a decision about which route to take for sure would have to be just before summer.

And such a decision would have to precede pursuit of a debt exclusion.

"I would be very nervous about holding back" letting the public know cost numbers before pursuing a ballot vote, Hayner said.

"The community needs to see our thought processes," Schlichtman said.

Allison-Ampe noted that the timeline devised by John Cole, chair of the Permanent Town Building Committee places, has the design phase starting June 30.

Schlichtman said discussion the Gibbs option would continue at the first meeting in April after more may be known known.

Members of public speak

Those speaking at public participation, at the meeting's beginning, reflected a clear attempt by parents to be fair to former Gibbs tenants.

Juliet Moir, a member of the Arlington School Enrollment Community Group, which has helped drive Thompson and Gibbs options, made clear she supports the four tenants of the former Gibbs.

She called the fate of the Center for the Arts' summer camp at ACE crucial, noting that is mobile and can be packed up and moved.

Timur Yontar, who said he is a member of the "Gibbs community," showed pottery made at an ACA class and noted his daughters took ACA camp.

He held up objects showing the connections to current tenants -- a mug that his daughter made made while in preschool at Lesley Ellis, art another made in the after-school Rec program at Gibbs gym.

"We like the Gibbs tenants," he said, while adding he backs the conversion of Gibbs as soon as possible.

One speaker, a woman who said she never had a child in schools, spoke in support of Arlington Center for the Arts. "School is important," she said, "but so are cultural activities."

Phil Goff, a co-chair of East Arlington Livable Streets Coalition (EALS), has an eighth grader at Ottoson and a third grader at Thompson. He expressed support for maintaining the ACA at Gibbs.

At the same time, he pointed to the advantages of having classes return there, citing a possible "renaissance" of walking and biking with this neighborhood option.

March 9, 2016: Task force hopes interim cost data for school options ready in a month

Feb. 2, 2016: School-budget number of $57.1M spurs concern, 5-2 vote
May 24, 2011: School Committee hears impact if an override passes or if it fails<
Opinion, Jan. 20, 2016: A look at the manager's preliminary budget, overrides 
Jan. 19, 2016: Town increases budget share for schools, but there's room for more

This news summary was published Sunday, March 13, 2016, and updated the same day, to correct information mistakenly attributed.