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Enrollment task force decides consultants are needed to weigh costs

Debt exclusion again discussed; former Gibbs renovation called swiftest

The School Enrollment Task Force, facing an array of options at its fourth meeting to address burgeoning student numbers, decided Tuesday, Feb. 23 to hire consultants to do a thorough study of the costs of renovating the former Gibbs, building an addition to the Ottoson and constructing six classrooms at the Thompson School.

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Key issues raised included, again, the possibility of putting a debt exclusion on the ballot to help pay for the changes. In addition, a report suggested that renovating the former Gibbs would be the quickest solution, saving a considerable amount of money for the rent of modular classrooms at the Ottoson. Of course, that option has a clear impact on four longtime tenants.

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After lengthy discussion, all task force members agreed that two options would be eliminated -- the eighth grade at the high school and construction of a new middle school.

Meeting in the School Committee Room, sixth floor, Arlington High, the task force took up elementary and middle-school space needs, as an estimated 70 visitors attended.

Audience members speak first

In a turnabout from previous practice, Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine opened the meeting by inviting those present to give their input before the committee took up its agenda.

Parents of current Arlington students all thanked the task force for its hard work on the enrollment issues. Several stressed these points -- to "make educational outcomes an explicit criteria in choosing one solution over another" and to make "educational quality key to decision-making."

Another spoke of the core space problems already at the Ottoson Middle School, with 400 students at a time using the cafeteria. Several expressed their support for renovating the former Gibbs School as a solution to future overcrowding at the Ottoson. Yet one spoke of the importance of the current tenants who serve the needs of her family members.

Middle-school options

Dr. Kathleen Bodie, the school superintendent, presented proposed solutions to the middle-school space issues.

Bodie first warned the assembled group that "no solution to the Ottoson is going to be prefect." Her recommendation calls for renovating the former Gibbs for use as a school -- either as an all-town sixth grade or a second middle school.

She found renovating the former Gibbs would be the quickest solution, saving a considerable amount of money for the rent of modular classrooms at the Ottoson over additional years. She called it a 14-month project. If the construction drawings could be completed by June 17, the renovated space could open in September 2017.

Other arguments for renovating the former Gibbs: 1.) the building needs structural repair, which would have to be done if still leased to tenants; and 2.) it remains important to keep the Gibbs and surrounding land "as an asset," because future enrollment is uncertain with the development of the Mugar site.

As to the four tenants, Bodie said she has been meeting with the Arlington Center for the Arts and discussion their possibility of continuing to use the building. A consultant has reported to Bodie that the cafeteria and kitchen could be constructed under the gym, leaving the auditorium to be used for plays and other events. In addition, the ACA might use school rooms for classes after school and on weekends.

Option 2 'complexities

Turning to option 2, providing an addition to the Ottoson, Bodie said that route has a number of "complexities."

First, the architectural consultant found the small field next to the Ottoson "not an easy site to build on," because of the terrain.

Second, there will be other costs because of possible code requirements that remain unknown right now. Other issues include how to create a passageway between the two schools and how the students can traverse the construction site and handle the noise for several years.

As for advantages to building an addition to the Ottoson, Bodie saw as the need for fewer transitions, more opportunities for teachers to collaborate and coherence of after-school and music programs.

The two other options under consideration are building a new middle school and moving the eighth grade to the high school by construction an addition. Bodie deemed building a new middle school too costly. In addition to considerable construction costs, the land for the building would have to be purchased. If the town wanted state support, it would have to wait a decade because of current need of state support for construction of the new high school.

Bodie reported that the greatest concern about moving the eighth grade to the high school and including new eighth-grade space as part of the design was "time." The high school will take a minimum of five years to build, and the need for space for the middle school is in the next few years. Continued use of modular classrooms would be very expensive and not solve core space problems, she said.

Concern expressed for former Gibbs tenants

Opened to discussion, members of the task force expressed considerable concern for the situation of the current tenants.

Bodie responded that this impact is a major drawback, but the building needed major repairs because of water leaks and a broken AC system, among other issues, and all the tenants would have to relocate while repairs were made.

School Committee member Bill Hayner recommended that the town work hard to find options. His colleague, Cindy Starks, observed that those involved would have at least another year to help the tenants find alternative space.

Questions about debt exclusion

The members then turned their attention to the need of a debt exclusion: Who would write it? When would it be placed before the voters? What construction costs would be included?

Of concern to School Committee member Jeff Thielman and others was the need to have firm numbers on construction costs. John Cole, head of building committee, argued that the costs on the report handed out were "worthless" until "engineers go through the buildings."

Bodie reported on the proposed construction of six classrooms for the Thompson School as costing about $2.5 million. This cost did not include any expansion of core spaces.

She warned the task force that the "timeline for the Thompson was tighter."

Sept. 17 construction start

Her recommendation was for construction to start on Sept. 17; otherwise, the town will be paying for an additional year for two modulars followed by two more modulars in the second year.

Some member of the task force reminded Bodie that the Thompson will also need to expand core areas, which is not included in the current budget. Allan Tosti, head of the Finance Committee, informed the task force that the construction will have to be paid for from a debt exclusion.

Finally, the task forced passed a motion that the town manager and superintendent would hire consultants to do a thorough study of the costs of renovating the Gibbs, the construction of the addition to the Ottoson and the construction of six new classrooms to the Thompson School. Funding the consultants would be shared by the Finance Committee and the School Department.

The next meeting is the task force is set for Tuesday, March 8, at 7 p.m., in the School Committee Room in the high school.

Jan. 14, 2016: Parents' group summary of Jan. 12 meeting

Jan. 13, 2016: Enrollment task force struggles to balance short-, long-term issues

Jan. 6, 2016: With parents' help, search for enrollment solutions turns to East Arlington
Dec. 21, 2016: Addition backed for Thompson; PARCC testing gets go-ahead
Arlington School Enrollment Community Group |   Group's Facebook page
Dec. 14, 2015: Variety of views offered as task force grapples with growth

This news summary was published Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. Notes were collected by Jo Anne Preston; she and Bob Sprague wrote it.

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