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Interim enrollment report spurs discussion, elimination of one option

Complete report, with cost numbers, expected April 28

An interim report that is "halfway" finished left members of the School Enrollment Task Force and the public continuing to struggle to see what shape the schools may take as they deal with expanded classrooms.

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Facing a report from architect HMFH that dealt with options for expanding the Ottoson or renovating the former Gibbs School, the task force on Tuesday, March 29, took one clear move, voting to reject a second option for Ottoson.

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That left one middle-school proposal and one for Gibbs. They lacked specific cost estimates, and those are expected by the next task force meeting, set for Town Hall on Thursday, April 28, at 7 p.m.

Among the 43 people in the audience, many parents expressed their concern that educational needs of the students are not a part of the calculus in planning. More specifically, they asked whether the task force has been taking into consideration the educational issues as presented by the middle-school teachers and staff.

And just as important, they inquired, would the concerns of the teachers and staff be made available to the task force before the decision is made to choose one of the options?

Al Tosti, chairman of the Finance Committee, told the parents that educational issues have to go through the School Committee and then given to the task force. Plans were made to continue to consult with teachers and staff for the upcoming School Committee meeting, April 14.

Cowles presents HMFH report

Meeting for the sixth time since December, the task force met from 6:03 to 7:20 p.m. in the School Committee Room at Arlington High. They received a handout from Lori Cowles of HMFH.
She began by clarifying that her presentation was only a progress report and she was only halfway through this project.

She showed the provisional floor plans of two options for an addition to the Ottoson Middle School.

Option 1 would be built on the Appleton Place side of the existing building. Parking would be on the ground floor with two floors of classrooms and breakout spaces. Students would need to go to main building for core areas -- cafeteria, gym, library, etc. The lowest level would be connected on either side of blue gym.

Option 2 would be built on the existing upper parking lot and a small section of an adjoining baseball field. Like Option 1, the first floor will be for parking and two floors for classroom and breakout spaces. Also, like Option 1, students would have to go to the main building for all core areas -- gyms, cafeteria, library, etc.

Cowles then explained that if the value of the expanded building was to be 30 percent or more of existing building, the town would be required to bring the existing building up to new accessibility codes. Bathrooms, doorways and other features of the building would have to be upgraded. In addition, with the increase in number of students, the town would have to "reprogram" the cafeteria, library, gyms, art rooms and other core areas.

With the floor open to task force members, Selectman Joseph Curro Jr. commented that option 1 would increase parking in the area.

John Cole, head of the Permanent Town Building Committee, asked whether Option 1 was subject to zoning laws on setbacks. Cowles replied yes but possibly the current plan without setbacks could be "grandfathered in."

'Breakout' spaces?

Tosti asked about the need for breakout spaces, small public spaces where students can meet in a small group for educational purposes. Cowles replied that it is part of middle-school pedagogy to have breakout spaces for group work.

Cowles replied to questions about the possibility of rock ledges that would increase the cost of the construction. She responded that while they have not yet done a formal study, given the topography in the area, "it would be safe to say that there is rock."

A discussion followed about the legality of taking a part of the baseball field for Option 2 and that it could require approval from Town Meeting and the state.

After further discussion focusing on difficulties of access to main building and other considerations, the task force passed a motion to eliminate Option 2 from consideration.

Cowles than proceeded to give her presentation on the renovation of the former Gibbs Schools as either an all-town sixth grade or a second middle school. The Gibbs School building was constructed in 1927-28 with additions and renovations in 1973. It has not been used as a school since the 1980s.

The renovation would require a new cafeteria, which could be constructed underneath the Gibbs gym but still allow for windows. The gym stairs are not up to code and need to be reconstructed. The current bathrooms are of required size, but adult facilities would be needed for each floor. All of the upstairs rooms are up to code.

The entrance of the Gibbs would need to be changed to Tufts Street to allow for administrative offices to be near the entrance on the first floor.

Members of the task force asked whether there would be the same number of classrooms as Option 1 at the Ottoson. Cowles replied there would be.

Tosti asked about the recent problems with drainage causing flooding on the first floor. Cowles explained that her investigation revealed issues of grading, which have now been repaired.

Added flooding issues

Some visitors, tenants in the building, reported additional flooding problems in the entrance to the building. Cowles said she would investigate. School Committee member Jeff Thielman suggested that we need a "good understanding of flooding issues."

Cole inquired about mobility access in the Gibbs and was told that the Gibbs has an elevator and the auditorium can be accessible from the parking lot side. The stage itself, however, will need to be made accessible. 

The discussion returned to Option 1 for the Ottoson, as Tosti asked for further information about the common areas. Bodie replied that we can expand the cafeteria, but the biggest issue will be "tight gym space."

She further added that there will be need of more parking in the light of the increase in numbers of students leading to an increase in teachers and staff.

Because of other commitments, Thielman and Chapdelaine had to leave at this point, necessitating a break in the discussion for setting the next meeting time. After much debate, the task force decided to meet at Town Hall on April 28.

The architect said her team could have solid numbers by the time of the meeting on the relative costs of both projects under consideration.

Tosti proposed asking a number of other town committees and other interested parties. Thus, members decided on Town Hall auditorium to accommodate everyone. 

A second meeting was set for Monday, May 2, at 7 p.m. for the final deliberations at Town Hall. No particular was room was mentioned.

Timeline discussed

The discussion resumed with questions about the timeline for construction or renovation.

Members of the task force were reassured that the modular units at Ottoson could stay in place while the other side of the building was under construction.

Cowles's estimate about the relative timelines was 14 months for the renovation of the Gibbs, completed by September 2018, and 18 months for construction at the Ottoson, completed by January 2019.

Cole reminded the task force that design planning and project manager "have to be online by this June" to achieve these timelines.

Cowles also reassured the task force that the renovation of the Gibbs would be good for the next 40 to 50 years.

The meeting was now open to the visitors for discussion. A Hardy parent questioned whether costs for expanding the Ottoson core areas will be added to the total cost of Option 1. Cowles said yes.

Tosti asked whether relative operating cost of each project could be calculated, since Ottoson will need fewer additional staff.

Several parents inquired about how much time students would need in the addition to Ottoson to reach their classes. Bodie responded that students in clusters will still need only the three minutes to change classes, but these students would need more time to leave the new building and travel to special areas, such as the gym.

Bodie was also asked whether the design of the Gibbs would differ if it served only sixth graders, compared with its serving sixth-through-eighth graders. She said it would not.

More questions about relative costs came up but were unable to be answered because the study is incomplete. Those present learned that on average new construction costs $400 a square foot while renovation costs $275. However, other variables would change these numbers considerably.

Related links

March 9, 2016: Task force hopes interim cost data for school options ready in a month

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 30, 2016. 

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