UPDATED, Jan. 8: As an active group of East Arlington parents provide substantial drive and data, the school-overcrowding issue moved toward a Special Town Meeting in a number of significant ways:
-- At the meeting of the Enrollment Task Force on Tuesday, Jan. 5, Finance Committee Chairman Allan Tosti recommended a plus-and-minus chart, including costs, for these options under consideration: two temporary modules at Thompson, busing one grade from Thompson to Peirce and combining Thompson and Hardy into one district.
-- At the school facilities subcommittee earlier that night, key options discussed were expanding buffer zones, considering a larger Ottoson, middle-school modular classrooms in the upper parking lot and considering a debt-exclusion vote as soon as next November.
-- The School Committee held a "visioning" meeting Thursday, Jan. 7, at Town Hall, where an estimated 200 people attended, to give the general public opportunities to help seek solutions to the crowding issues that burst into public consciousness last August.
Then, the focus was on the impact of possibly returning the former Gibbs Jr. High, long home to four established institutions, to classrooms. Now all of East Arlington is the focal point, as data show Thompson and Hardy populations continue to grow.
Parents make impact
In response, parents joining in the East Arlington Enrollment Steering Committee Group are providing proposals, all of which are linked at its website. See it here >>
Members of the group have declined to be named or quoted, but they have made their ideas known, including a Dec. 16 plan on Thompson overcrowding and lengthier proposal presented Jan. 5. Read it here >>
In summary, the latter plan asks that town to:
-- Place two modular classrooms at Thompson for one year starting in September;
-- Build six permanent classrooms at Thompson, opening in September, which the School Committee endorsed Dec. 17; and
-- Expand Thompson cafeteria and gym, providing flexible space to handle increased number of students.
The proposal says it enables the town to redistrict East Arlington, relieving the pressure for modulars and/or construction at Hardy. The result, the proposal says, is that the average class sizes at Thompson and Hardy would be under 22 in 2021-22.
The plan adds: "However, if the projections continue to be accurate, and with redistricting, total Thompson enrollment will be over 500 for the foreseeable future."
At the task-force meeting, Dr. Kathleen Bodie, superintendent of schools, recommended moving forward with a permanent addition to Thompson, possibly also addressing common areas.
She asked the group to consider two modular classrooms for next year and having the permanent addition open in September 2017.\
Much discussion ensued, mostly from nonschool leaders, about options other than a permanent addition. Much concern was expressed about these impending projects: the high school rebuild, which the state has nearly approved; rebuilding Minuteman High School, whose School Committee has a new agreement, and it is before the Special Town Meeting; Ottoson, whose plans are in flux, and Stratton, to be renovated and facing a Town Meeting vote.
Facilities subcommittee report
At the earlier facilities subcommittee, present were School Committee members Cindy Stark, Jeff Thielman and Bill Hayner; Bodie. In the audience were three Thompson parents.
The meeting was fast paced, with Bodie in charge, citing the urgency of the situation. Here are the issues addressed, in summary:
ENROLLMENT: After much back-and-forth, there seemed to a consensus that the Thompson and Hardy will have considerable enrollment growth over the next five to 10 years, with no significant decline in numbers.
Referring to demographer Jerome McKibben, who has made enrollment projections since last June, Bodie said even with his new numbers, "there will be 500 students at the Thompson in the next five years."
Still, there was considerable uncertainty about even a greater increase in numbers. Bodie said the "natural aging process must be considered [and will change numbers of students]; many older people in Bishop may move out."
Hayner added that the town must consider "the reality of the Mugar until absolutely forbidden."
Overall, the subcommittee saw the enrollment crisis primarily at the Hardy, Thompson, Ottoson and the high school.
BUFFER ZONES: A lengthy discussion took place about expansion of buffer zones, established in 2013 to provide flexibility about where students may attend school. This option appeared to be seen as assisting but not solving the issue of overcrowding in elementary schools -- at least not for Thompson and Hardy.
Bodie suggested using buffer zones to make class sizes more equal and larger buffer zones by combining Thompson and Hardy.
Such an expansion for Stratton would "open up to lessen pressure on Bishop."
OTTOSON: The subcommittee discussion appeared to accept a larger size for the Ottoson.
Starks said the committee would have to decide Thursday, Jan. 7, whether it should embrace a big middle school.
Bodie suggested building there, saying John Cole, chair of the Permament Town Building Committee, has proposed an elevated structure above school but would need legislative approval to use land above Ottoson and would draw resistance from the neighborhood. The idea of using the Crusher Lot was reported in December >>
Starks said parking must be added.
Hayner asked whether it be cost-effective to have modulars there. Bodie said that, modulars are used, they must be in the upper parking lot, and permanent construction is possible in the lower parking lot.
"We have some time on the Ottoson," she said.
HIGH SCHOOL: Much remains unclear about the trajectory of the rebuild. Members said they were undecided about whether the eighth grade should be placed there.
GIBBS: Hayner asked Bodie what it would take to do it up to code. "What estimate for just one classroom?" he asked.
Thielman said he doubted the Gibbs can return to classrooms, because students need access to special services, guidance, etc.
Renovation of Gibbs, Bodie said, "would cost $20 million for improving a 100-year-old building -- better to put money into new construction."
THOMPSON, HARDY SCHOOLS: A proposal from the East Arlington Enrollment Steering Committee Group was presented two-thirds of the way through the meeting. The man handing it out said that the plan incorporates buffer zones and new construction at the Thompson, including expanded core areas.
Thielman explains suggested fall vote
WARRANTS, DEBT EXCLUSION: As time was short, discussion was hurried about the content of the warrants, which proposals should come before the Special Town Meeting, which should wait until the spring and who should write up the specifics on the warrants.
Asked to explain his remarks in more detail, Thielman wrote in an email Jan 6 that the previous evening he had "suggested that we think about the need for additional classrooms and common space at Thompson in the context of our overall space needs. I see three areas of need: the high school, additional space for the middle school and expansion at Thompson to accommodate enrollment growth in East Arlington.
"In my opinion, all of this can be addressed in one debt-exclusion vote in November of 2016."
He suggested that such a question could be on the ballot for the presidential election.
"I think the timing might work well for the process I hope we begin with the MSBA," the agency that expects to approve funding to rebuild Arlington High School on Jan. 27.
"The vote would increase our debt capacity by 50% of the cost of the high school, the full cost of a middle school expansion (which could be an 8th grade wing at the new high school) and funding for the Thompson expansion.
"As we have done in the past, Town Meeting, acting upon recommendations of the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, Finance Committee and Capital Planning Committee, would actually allocate the funds for specific projects. But this all begins with a debt exclusion vote.
"So, my idea is a November 2016 (not 2018, but 2016) for as much of our anticipated capital debt need as possible."
He wrote that "this is one man's opinion, though. I suggested it, and there was no reaction from the Task Force. But, no one shot the idea down."
Under the current town-school budget formula, the earliest an override might occur, according to town budget projections, would not be until 2018 -- and likely not until 2020.
The Board of Selectmen would have to vote to place such a measure on the town ballot.
Dec. 21, 2016: Addition backed for Thompson; PARCC testing gets go-ahead
Dec. 14, 2015: Variety of views offered as task force grapples with growth
This report was published Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, and updated Jan. 8. Jo Anne Preston provided building committee notes, and Bob Sprague wrote it. The next meeting of the Enrollment Task Force is 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, at the Lyons Meeting Room, Towm Hall.
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