Special Town Meeting to consider immediate school-space issues

Enrollment task force eyes speedy option; School Committee to discuss broader issues

The $20 million rebuilt Thompson School, opened in 2013, cannot hold its growing number of students. Four of the other seven elementary schools threaten to burst. So does Ottoson, nearing numbers that would make it the state's largest middle school.

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Arlington town seal

The expansion led school officials in August to think about taking back the former Gibbs Jr. High, home to Arlington Center for the Arts and Lesley Ellis, among others, since the late 1980s. These are among the issues a task force struggled with at its first meeting, Monday, Nov. 30, at Town Hall.

Allowing that enrollment growth is hard to gauge, members tried to outline solutions -- immediate and long term.

Pressure to act soon is upon the 10 members, as a Special Town Meeting is set for Jan. 25. That meeting, to address funding for a renovation of the Stratton School, has at least one other agenda item -- an article to address the school-space issues generally in town.

"We are working on broad language that will allow the task force the greatest degree of flexibility as it considers recommendations," Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine wrote Wednesday, Dec. 2.

Under such an article, funding could be discussed for a short-term fix -- modular classrooms at the Thompson, Hardy and perhaps elsewhere. Whether the modular units are temporary or permanent remains to be discussed.


The work goes on

The enrollment task force has scheduled two more meetings -- Wednesday, Dec. 9; and Tuesday, Dec. 22, each starting at 7 p.m. in the Lyons Hearing Room, second floor, Town Hall.

The public has an opportunity to comment to a greater degree on these issues Thursday, Jan. 7, at Town Hall, a meeting that School Committee member Jennifer Susse called a "visioning session."


Future of community schools, Ottoson model?

The broader issues to be addressed are whether Arlington continues to have community elementary schools -- those with separate boundaries -- and whether the Ottoson continues to group its grades in clusters.

Among suggestions discussed during the two-hour meeting was merging the Thompson and Hardy districts into one, an idea that drew support from one Thompson parent who spoke. About twenty-five people were in the audience in the Lyons Hearing Room, including state Rep. Sean Garballey; Linda Shoemaker, executive director of the arts center; and Ted Wilson, executive director of Schools for Children, which operates Lesley Ellis School, a Gibbs tenant since 1989.

Quote bar, red'Maybe our neighborhood school model is wrong.'
Charlie Foskett

Looking at 200 more students at Ottoson in the next two years, Superintendent Kathleen Bodie raised the bigger issues. "The middle-school model may have to go away," she said, referring to the fact that students are groups in clusters in grades seven through eight.

Later, Charlie Foskett, vice chair of the Finance Committee and chair of capital planning, suggested "looking at a slightly different approach .... Maybe our neighborhood school model is wrong ....
We’re not talking about 50 miles away; we're talking 10 blocks."

Allan Tosti, Finance Committee chairman, add to the larger financial picture the facts that whatever decisions are made will take place in the context of an expected rebuild of Arlington High School, the possible renovation of Minuteman High School and a town override, perhaps in 2018.

Need to to discuss

Jeff Thielman said the School Committee should take up the issues of Ottoson and community schools but allow some time to consider them. In view of the approaching Special Town Meeting, he and others urged immediate responses.

After a meandering discussion, the 10 present appeared to move toward adding modular classrooms at Thompson, where Bodie said the district will "absolutely need" more classrooms in 2017-18.

For modulars to be in place by next September, they must be ordered by March 1.

The permanent modular units that architect HMFH is looking at are stackable, Bodie said, adding that a temporary fix is "not a great solution." That is, they could rise to three floors.

On the other hand, the cost of temporary modulars is about half that of permament units.

For the next task force meeting, Tosti is seeking all relevant information about modular classrooms. He allowed that "we could use [temporary units] for Thompson and Hardy for two or three years and see."

Quote bar, red'Great question.'
Kathy Bodie, responding to query about October numbers 

Selectman Joseph Curro Jr. asked about enrollment numbers reported in October, which came in below projected numbers.

"Great question," Bodie responded, saying 5,400 students districtwide were predicted for this year, but the October total came in at 5,256.

"I don’t know how to interpret that," she said. "It will take another year to see whether it's an aberration or trend."

Whatever the predictions, the administration does not have a real handle on enrollment for the following school year until summer, Bodie said.

The evening was not without a moment of humor. School Committee member Bill Hayner asked: "What part of this [issue] is class size?" He added, without endorsing the idea, that the town take of the problem by having large classes.

"Certainly no more than 40," Tosti said, a quip that brought smiles.

Gibbs, Mugar

Task force members raised the following points:

-- Hayner suggested considered another building and a different grade configuration, group five and six and then seven and eight.

-- Selectman Diane Mahon raised two sticky issues -- the former Gibbs and the Mugar site. Bodie said the former would involve "major construction." Chapdelaine, who chaired the meeting, said the town awaits a decision by MassHousing on Mugar.

Mahon asked how the School Committee would address the proposed development if it "comes online." Committee member Cindy Starks said, "It's hard to know." She said members would review the impact of projects at Alta Brigham and Arlington 360.

-- Mahon also asked that teachers be involved in enrollment and spaces issues.

The task force ended its discussion 97 minutes into the meeting. After that, the public spoke. Among points raised:

-- Linda Hanson, Arlington Education Association president, asked where documents about enrollment could be found (see the top at the end of this summary).

-- A resident wanted to know the total number schooled in Arlington, including private school, daycare, prekindergarten and home-schooling.

-- A Thompson mother said she favored temporary modular classrooms. Because of staggered cafeteria hours, she said, one of her children eats lunch at 10:40 a.m.


Related links

Relevant documents discussed at the first enrollment task force meeting, Nov. 30, 2015

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 summary was published Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015.