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Task force hopes interim cost data for school options ready in a month

Tenants, parents have their own views of timelines; debt-exclusion vote in June?

UPDATED, March 11: After extensive discussion Tuesday, March 8, the School Enrollment Task Force adopted a motion to seek two studies detailing the relative costs of the two middle-school options -- reconstruction of the former Gibbs and new addition to the Ottoson -- as well as the cost of the Thompson expansion.

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HMFH Architects of Cambridge plans to submit an interim report on the sites of all three proposed projects to the task force within four weeks. 

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The final report, including construction, costs needs to be completed and sent to the task force and School Committee before Town Meeting, which starts April 25.

Before the vote, the task force heard from some of the 46 audience members, including pleas from two of tenants of the former Gibbs School, representatives of the Kelliher School and Arlington Center for the Arts. Both focused on the impact on their long-established nonprofits, citing the need for a reasonable time to locate alternative space.

Pushing in another direction were parents who expressed concern about importance of a "tight" timeline to serve the students’ classroom needs and reminded the task force that "delay costs money." Looming behind these countervailing forces was discussion of a ballot question to seek a debt exclusion, or a tax increase to pay for school costs. Instead of holding it next November, a June date was raised.

Public comment first

These were key points of the meeting, the task force's fifth since December. In general, here are further details behind those points.

The meeting began at 7, when Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine, invited the audience members to comment.

Two tenants of the former Gibbs and their supporters spoke of the impact a forced move would have on their ability to service their clients and the Arlington community.

A representative of the Kelleher Center, which serves adults with developmental disabilities and brain injuries, said Kelliher had been a tenant for more than 21 years and that it had paid for repairs, including $100,000 to contain flooding in the building.

If the center had to move, it would be difficult to continue because of the scarcity of appropriate available space. In addition, the long-term employment programs in the community, such as with Stop & Shop, would be severed.

Linda Shoemaker, the executive director of the Arlington Center for the Arts, emphasized two issues:

1.) The timeline of eviction was very important to the economic survival of the program. Why? Because the possible need to vacate by June 2017 would mean that the center could not run the summer camp, which she said furnishes 50 percent of the operating budget; and

2.) Public perceptions that a solution is near for alternative space are not correct. The center is in very preliminary discussions with the town and far from locating any suitable space.

Bodie presentation of 2 options

Following comments, Superintendent Kathleen Bodie gave a presentation about the studies for the two options to address Ottoson overcrowding.
Bodie also presented a third option, to create an elementary school at the former Gibbs and expand all elementary schools to include the sixth grade -- allowing the Ottoson to hold only the seventh and eighth grades.

John Cole, head of the Permanent Town Building Committee, discussed the most probable and "best case" scenarios for the timeline of all school-building projects: Thompson expansion, renovation of the former Gibbs for a school, addition to the Ottoson, new construction of high school and the rebuilding of the Minuteman Vocational high school.

After extensive discussion, the task force passed a motion to approve two studies of relative costs of the two middle-school options (reconstruction of the former Gibbs and new addition to the Ottoson) and the cost of the Thompson expansion by HMFH Architects of Cambridge.

The task force decided that the cost of these studies would be shared equally between the School Department and the Finance Committee.

Ballot question discussion

School Committee member Jeff Thielman initiated a discussion about what is involved in pursuing a ballot question for a debt exclusion, needed to pay for the school projects, as well as the timing of bringing the issue to the voters. Only the Board of Selectmen can vote to pursue such a ballot question, and Chapdelaine put the matter on the board’s radar Monday, March 7.

Because of the involvement of other parties -- in the case of the Arlington High rebuild, a state agency -- and the other participating towns -- now 10 in the case of rebuilding Minuteman Vocational and Technical High School -- only the Thompson expansion, the middle-school construction and the feasibility study for AHS would be included in the next debt exclusion, the task force decided.

As for when the debt exclusion would be brought to the voters, members expressed the tension between allowing time to fully educate the voters and the need to begin construction as early as possible to avoid additional costs.

Wanting not to incur avoidable extra expenses, members suggested a debt-exclusion vote in June, an issue to be discussed at the next task force meeting, set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 29, in the School Committee room.

Third item -- add grade 6 to all

Bodie moved to the third item on the agenda -- a new proposal to use the Gibbs for an additional elementary school and add a sixth grade to all the existing elementary schools. This proposal, from Finance Committee member Dean Carman, is spelled out in detail here >> 

The issues that emanated from creating eight K-6 elementary schools proved to be undesirable and mostly unworkable, according to subsequent task-force discussion.

They include a redistricting of the entire town, moving at least 300 students, programs now available to middle school students would have to be abolished, only one foreign language could be offered at each school and current sixth-grade teachers would have to seek relicensing, because they would be teaching an elementary school.

Al Tosti, head of the Finance Committee, decided that Arlington had years ago moved to a middle-school model, and it was beyond the scope of this task force to reshape the structure of Arlington schooling, and members of the task force agreed.

Cole, of the town building committee, opened up the discussion of timelines using a spreadsheet he had creating using all available data.

His main concern was the "overlay" of school projects and that financial decisions would "stack up on top of one another." Citing the "best-case scenario," he projected that the new middle school would open either September 2018 to 2019 and that the Thompson additions would open September 2017 or January 2018.

The study of the former Gibbs is expected to cost $21,620 and the Ottoson study $27,490, according to a handout from the meeting.
Tosti vowed to split the cost using town reserve funds if the school district was able to fund the rest. Each side is responsible for paying $24,555, Tosti said.

Related links

Feb. 24, 2016: Enrollment task force decides consultants are needed to weigh costs

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

This news summary was published Wednesday, March 9, 2016, and updated March 11, to add the word '"interim," to the headline.

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