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School enrollment task force chooses Gibbs option

Foskett, Tosti vote for Ottoson; analysis calls Gibbs too expensive

UPDATED, May 4: To deal with expanding enrollment, a task force on Monday, May 2, voted in favor of the option to renovate the former Gibbs School and not pursue a separate building at Ottoson. The vote was 7-2, with Charles Foskett and Al Tosti favoring the Ottoson option.

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With all task force members present and an audience of visitors that grew to more than 50, Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine called the meeting to order at 7 p.m. sharp. He quickly moved to the second agenda item: the vote on whether the town should move to refurbish the former Gibbs building or construct an addition to the Ottoson to meet the needs of the expanded number of middle-school students.

School Committee member Bill Hayner, who stated that his initial reservations about the increased in transitions for Arlington students with the use of the Gibbs for an all-town sixth grade were allayed by learning about the positive experiences Needham has had with the all-sixth-grade High Rock School.

Foskett see $30M difference with architect

Foskett, chair of the Capital Planning Committee, then presented his document, "Gibbs vs. Ottoson Analysis," which he developed over the preceding weekend. His analysis contradicted the findings of HMFH, the Cambridge architectural firm, which proposed an estimates of the cost for the construction and "soft costs" for the Gibbs would be $19.9 million and for the Ottoson addition a total of $22.8 million.

Foskett added to the original figures supplied by HMFH the Gibbs rental income and incremental operating costs at the Gibbs as well as 4-percent interest rate and cost inflation, and he concluded that the Gibbs costs could exceed the Ottoson costs by more than $30 million for the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade option and by approximately $12.8 million for the sixth-grade option.

In addition to the difference in cost stemming primarily from differences in operating costs, Foskett cited the problems with two school transitions for the students in the sixth-grade-only model and the inequality in education for students in the two middle-school model. For the latter, he cited the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which he said that providing separate schools was inherently unequal.

Foskett ended his presentation by expressing his concern about the financial future of the town: "I am worried about the leadership of the town and their willingness to spend money ... for subjective reasons."

'Cut into budget every year' 

He pointed out that the increase in operating cost engendered by the Gibbs option "will cut into the budget" every year. He concluded: " ... for these reasons, I support an Ottoson solution, not a Gibbs solution."

Hayner interjected an issue not yet discussed in detail -- the serious traffic problems already at the Ottoson, which would become much worse with the Ottoson solution. He followed by noting that the Gibbs should be seen as a future asset. The town, he said, "one way or another must invest in the Gibbs for the future of the town."

Superintendent Kathleen Bodie responded to the Foskett analysis by reminding everyone that the numbers on operating costs "represent the worst case" and would not necessarily be that high. She continued by informing the task force that experts have told her that the repairs to the Gibbs, if it continued as a rental property, would be extensive.

Foskett suggested that the tenants could pay the repairs. However, Chapdelaine replied that the repairs would cost from $4 million to $6 million and could not be fully be recouped by raising the rent on the tenants.

Tosti changes mind

Tosti, chair of the Finance Committee, informed everyone that he had awakened that morning in favor of the Gibbs, but after seeing the numbers gathered by Foskett he became concerned about the substantial increase in the school budget. He offered he might support the sixth-grade Gibbs solution if there was a way to reduce the operating expenses.

Diane Mahon, chair of the Board of Selectmen, spoke about her conversations with parents across the town. All, she reported, favored the Gibbs solution. She also added that the staff and teachers overwhelmingly supported the Gibbs and preferred that it was used for an all-town sixth grade.

School Committee member Jeff Thielman concurred that the reconstruction of the Gibbs for a school was be the better choice for educational reasons. He proposed that the use of the Gibbs for an all-town sixth grade would be "the middle road." It would be educationally sound and less of a financial burden than a second middle school six through eight at the Gibbs.

Saying he took seriously the financial issues raised by Foskett, Thielman moved that the town renovate the Gibbs as a sixth grade.

Selectmen Joseph Curro Jr. raised two issues: First, the Gibbs is an important financial asset for the town that should be preserved, not sold; second, the current problems at the Ottoson concerning students traversing the building to attend various classes are already manifest and would be made worse by the addition. The reduction in parking spaces presented yet another serious problem.

Cole cautions about Gibbs

John Cole, the head of the Permanent Town Building Committee, offered his support for the Gibbs option but cautioned the task force that it would not be ready until the first quarter of the fall 2019. He also asked whether the Gibbs could relieve overcrowding in some of the elementary schools and whether there could be some shared use by current tenants.

Bodie confirmed there were possibilities for the auditorium to be used by theater groups and arts programs might be combined with the after school programs.

Foskett reminded all that the town was forced to close five schools in the 1980s because of financial burden of the operating costs. In the future, he opined, the town could again have to close schools. The school department already has desired programs it cannot fund, he continued.

Thielman then restated his motion: To use the Gibbs as an all-town sixth grade while taking into consideration the financial considerations as outlined by Tosti. It was seconded.

School Committee member Cindy Starks spoke about the importance of education, which means one cannot always make decision based on lower cost. She reminded everyone that neighborhood schools were more expensive but educationally superior.

Cole commented that the growing student enrollment shows the success of the rebuilding of the elementary schools because "everyone wants to come to Arlington."

The town manger called the question. The motioned passed, seven support and two opposed.

A second motion to move forward with the design and cost project for the Thompson School was made and quickly passed without discussion. The next meeting of the task force will address the construction of the Thompson. A date has not yet been set.

The meeting was adjourned at 8:03 p.m.

Related links

May 1, 2016: School enrollment task force weighs Ottoson vs. Gibbs options

April 14, 2016: School Committee supports educational recommendation for Gibbs option
March 28, 2016: School Committee votes to express sense of urgency about enrollment moves
March 22, 2016: Long Range Planning faces debt-exclusion decisions
March 9, 2016: Task force hopes interim cost data for school options ready in a month
Nov. 15, 2014: Racism? Bodie says updated numbers show decline in out-of-school suspensions
Dec. 14, 2015: Variety of views offered as task force grapples with growth
Dec. 2, 2015: Enrollment task force holds first meeting
Oct. 11, 2015: CROWDING CRUNCH: Arts, educators, nonprofit make pitches
Sept. 28, 2015: As public-school enrollment rises, officials, public grapple with future
Space Planning Report for Arlington Public Schools," HMFH Architects, September 2015 
"Arlington Public Schools Population and Enrollment Forecasts," Dr. Jerome McKibben, McKibben Demographic Research, June 2015 
Linda Shoemaker's statement in September supporting ACA
Sept. 10 comments to School Commitee about the Gibbs by Ted Wilson
Oct. 15, 2014: Public schools' enrollment continues to rise

This report was published Monday, May 2, and updated May 3, with a full report, and then May 4, to Foskett's analysis.

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