Variety of views offered as task force grapples with growth

Suggestions: For classes, use part of Gibbs, other towns; estimate of up to $20m to renovate ex-school

UPDATED, Dec. 21: With an estimated 35 people in the audience, many from the Thompson neighborhood, the second meeting of the enrollment task force Wednesday, Dec. 9, focused on overcrowding at Thompson, but discussion showed that a solution for that school is tied to larger enrollment issues affecting all town schools. Public comments registered objections to some ideas.  

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Options that officials offered included the desirability of neighborhood schools, funds to rebuild the high school (word of the state decision about that is expected between Dec. 21 and 30), the perceived need to use the former Gibbs Jr. High for classrooms, sending to students to other towns, the difference between the McKibben forecast for enrollment and October data that show a smaller increase as well as the probability of building a new elementary school despite lack of open land for the project.

Finance Committee Chairman Al Tosti suggested the school administration "may not need the whole Gibbs to relieve pressure on Thompson and Hardy." Selectman Diane Mahon also suggested using part of the Gibbs. Tosti noted "satellite campuses in 1970s -- why not now?"

Superintendent Kathleen Bodie responded. "It would be a different elementary experience."

The idea to use some space for classrooms was offset by the projected cost to renovate the entire former Gibbs -- from $14 million to $20 million, Bodie said. 

Asked to clarify, Tosti told YourArlington on Dec. 13: "I suggested that, if there was room for 2 to 4 classrooms plus the gym, we could use part of the Gibbs as a satellite campus for Thompson and gain some flexibility and time." Mahon has not responded to a request for comment.

Consider the timelines 

Overall, the meeting showed that timelines are an important consideration in deciding how to address increased enrollment. Additions to buildings or permanent modules are a better choice but take longer to put in place.

As to when decisions on construction of renting or purchasing trailers must be voted on to meet need for additional classrooms in the next school year, Bodie said that if there are temporary classrooms at Thompson next year, look for funding at Town Meeting in January. The latest time to order them would be March, she said.

The length of time to renovate Gibbs would depend on the degree of the work, she said.

Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine opened the meeting at 7:11 p.m. and asked to skip agenda items to hear the report of the schools' Facilities Committee by its chair, School Committee member Cindy Starks. She elaborated on what she calls "the four big questions." Read the summary here >>

Bodie then began to present a report from Dine Johnson, the schools' CFO, and her, titled "Requested Information for the December 9 Meeting" (it is not yet online). That led to a free-flowing discussion about many points raised. These included examining maps of land around the high school. See maps here >>

Key comments

'Maybe our neighborhood school model is wrong.'
Charlie Foskett

Here are key points from that discussion:

-- Charlie Foskett, chairman of the Capital Planning Committee, warned committee of "taxpayer fatigue"; that is, the town has upcoming financial obligations of about $12 million to rebuild Stratton; of an estimated $150 million (exact number not known) to rebuild the high school and to a considerable contribution to rebuild Minuteman.

-- Foskett argued that middle school and high school were the larger issues; elementary schools could have temporary modules, he said, because the McKibben Report -- read it here >>  -- forecasts an end to increased enrollment after five years.

-- Offsetting figures from McKibben about growth of school population are actual October enrollment numbers that show a slight decline. Much discussion ensued about whether this is a small difference or one affecting all the projections. McKibben is returning to discuss the issue to a school subcommittee Friday, Dec. 18.

-- New proposals included extending leases on temporary modules at Stratton and move them to Thompson when needed, as well as seek space in neighboring towns for some of the needed Thompson classrooms. Tosti asked to consider "any other facilities in neighboring communities not being used." It was clear from discussion that he was seeking another option and not offering a firm plan.

-- Bodie discussed whether purchase or lease modular classrooms. Purchased units come with a monthly fee, but units may also be stacked. One big difference is time: Permanent units take more time.

-- Bodie reported the price for stacked, permanent modules for Thompson from $2 million to $2.5 million; a new addition at Thompson would be from $2.3 million to $2.7 million.

-- Suggestions included using part of the Thompson gym for classrooms.

-- To save time, Tosti suggested using the same architect that designed the $20 million Thompson School, HMFH of Cambridge, and contractor, but the jobs would have to be put out to bid.

-- Thompson needs at least one or two additional classrooms next year, but two the next year, two the following year and one the next year, Bodie said.

-- Combining kindergartens at Thompson and Hardy could help enrollment issue, according to Bodie.

Public comments

Enrollment will grow as Mugar plan 'moves forward.'
Thompson parent

At 9:01 p.m., Chapdelaine asked for public comment. About 25 had attended the Dec. 2 task force; about 35 visitors were present Dec. 9. An estimated 25 Thompson parents met downstairs at Town Hall before the meeting. Public comment lasted until 9:31.

Comments were mostly from those who identified themselves as Thompson parents. Once questions began, the mood of the meeting changed from quieter voices to strong, direct statements. Among them:

-- How can you suggest that combining classes at the Hardy and Thompson would temporarily solve the enrollment crisis when both schools need from one to two additional classrooms next year?

-- Enrollment is going to continue to grow in contradiction to the McKibben Report because the Mugar project is moving forward and families will continue to move to Arlington.

-- Many parents were angered at the suggestions of placing children in classrooms in other towns or creating satellite classrooms in other building in Arlington and taking away gym space for classrooms. 

-- Some parents said the Thompson was already overcrowded with no space for the after school program and no storage for arts supplies and other materials.

-- Several parents spoke on the need to enlarge the lunchroom if additional classrooms were added.

These comments drew no substantial responses.

The next task force meeting had been set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 22, in the Lyons' Hearing Room, Town Hall, but that meeting was canceled, because a number of members were unavailable. The next session is expected to be Jan. 5.

Starks also reiterated the earlier announcement by School Committee member Jennifer Susse for a "visioning session," Thursday, Jan. 7, at Town Hall, so the public has an opportunity to comment to a greater degree on these issues. The School Enrollment Task Force is a cosponsor.

Dec. 2, 2015: In 1st session, enrollment task force eyes speedy option; School Committee to discuss broader issues

Summary of "Four Big Questions," presented by Cindy Starks | Longer version
Town link to enrollment task force
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 Committee about the Gibbs by Ted Wilson
Oct. 15, 2014: Public schools' enrollment continues to rise

This summary was published Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, and updated Dec. 21, to report the Dec. 22 meeting was canceled. Volunteer Jo Anne Preston took notes; Bob Sprague wrote the report.