Unofficial Minutes: Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee Meeting 10/24/16 – Key Points

Note: These are NOT official minutes.

Written by: Diego Hammerschlag

Committee members: Elizabeth Yusem, Kendra Foley, and Eileen Hsu-Balzer.

Others in attendance: Mark Sideris, School Committee member and Town Council President; Dr. Theresa McGuinness, Acting Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent; Steve Romanelli, Director of Facilities and Transportation; Deigo Hammerschlag (WSS), and David Stokes (WSS).

Shed at Hosmer Elementary School

The donation was previously approved. All concerned parties have approved the purchase and proposed location for the shed.

Given that the donation was from Lowe’s, Eileen Hsu-Balzer requested that the purchase be made from Lowe’s provided that the price and quality are comparable to the current quote provided by Home Depot. A request was also made to ensure that a ramp and a lock be provided if needed. Steve Romanelli indicated that it can be evaluated and provided at the time of the installation.

Buddy Benches in Memory of Bob Galante

A donation for the purchase of ‘Buddy Benches’ to honor Bob Galante was already approved. The money was raised through a GofundMe campaign coordinated by Maria Hinkson, a Lowell parent. The goal is to place the benches at all 3 elementary schools (Cunniff, Lowell, and Hosmer) as well as the Middle School and Victory Field.

Eileen Hsu-Balzer noted that Victory Field may not be a good location given near term renovation plans. All locations may require additional town approval given that they are not the sole responsibility of WPS. A motion was made to ensure that the cost of the installed benches not exceed the $3,540 donated and that the placement and distribution of the benches are to be coordinated by the Principals of the 4 schools mentioned.

Unofficial Minutes: Meeting of the Steering Committee of the Master Planning Design Process on 06/15/2016 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the bottom of the minutes.

Written by:  Kate Coyne and David Stokes

Committee members:  John Portz, Co-chair; Liz Yusem, Co-chair; Dr. Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Charles Kellner, Director, Business Services; Vincent Piccirilli, Town Council Vice-President; Michael Dattoli, Town Councilor; Steve Magoon, Assistant Town Manager and Director, Community Development and Planning; Deb King, WEA President and WMS teacher; Toni Carlson, K-12 Educational Technology and Library Coordinator; Dr. Kimo Carter, WMS Principal; Alyson Morales; Pete Caron; Mike Shepard; Elaina Griffith; Chris Lowry.

Audience members:  Lisa Feltner, Town Councilor; Kate Coyne, WSS; David Stokes, WSS; Elodia Thomas; Christie Fisher, WPS Administrative Assistant; and one other community member. 

Introductions

Dr. Michael van Hamel, one of the two primary SMMA folks who will be working with Watertown on this project over the summer, started off by introducing himself, his background, and his connections to education and educational architecture.  Then, one by one, all the other people in the room, including the audience members, were invited to introduce themselves and their connection to the project.

Overview of the Project

Michael then introduced the Project, via a slide show, that presented the ideas and discussions that SMMA had with the Educational Leadership team for the Project during 2 sessions that were held previous to the Steering Committee meeting.  He described the various modalities of 21st Century learning, which are important concepts to support through design and redesign.  He talked about the need for “flexible spaces” and “movable, flexible furniture” in those spaces, in order to accommodate multiple modalities within the same space.  He highlighted that SMMA embraces Responsible Design, and the concept of the Building as a Teacher.  He touched on the integration of STEAM (sometimes referred to as STREAM, where the “R” stands for Research) into the building, sometimes in less traditional spaces, like playgrounds.  He said that SMMA would certainly be able to reclaim space in the buildings.  He identified the need for professional workspaces for teachers, including teaming and collaboration spaces.  He spoke about SMMA’s review of the 2014 WPS school buildings physical study (and, in particular, the comparison of each classroom in each school against the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s guidelines), which was made easier by the high quality of the 2014 report.  He noted that scheduling and culture play significant roles in this process and the planning of space.  He concluded with some next steps around more research, including the land surveyor’s office; a look at the “money component” and “strands of students”; a continuing to do their due diligence; and a collection of additional details from teachers and administrators, with updates about the details of how space is configured and used today.

Then, the remaining time was used as a Q&A period.  During this Q&A, Michael reassured the assembly that the teachers and administrators of WPS are already doing 21st Century teaching – just without the space(s) to support them; they already have embraced the concepts – which makes SMMA’s job significantly easier.  The learning spaces seem to be the biggest limits and constraints, and even so, the teachers are still able to teach using the multiple learning modalities he presented in the slide show.  Michael suggested that Quincy HS might be a good model of where WPS might be going, although he acknowledged that it was new construction, so it might not match up exactly.  He agreed to do some homework for the next meeting, researching a better model for Watertown’s project.

In answer to other questions, Michael said that SMMA tries to be real with the numbers of students housed in each building, that they will use the existing enrollment studies that have been done recently, while looking to national and regional trends.  He pointed out that there has been no pen to paper yet, in terms of design – everything is still “on the table” (new construction, renovations, “phased” approach); SMMA is still in the information gathering phase.

Jean was able to verify that Universal PreK is being considered as part of the long look-ahead; Vinnie pointed out that Minuteman is a set of important decisions at the other end of the student spectrum, which also need to be addressed.

Commentary

David Stokes

At first blush, Dr. van Hamel presented lots of information, all of which is relevant and important to the project.  I liked that he could show us work that had already been started (and/or completed) to-date.

However, as others have already commented in other venues, it was difficult to see the slide show (due to lighting and projection), the room was uncomfortably warm (but the air conditioner made it too difficult to hear), and we were configured to sit in a 20th Century learning environment to talk about 21st Century learning at WPS.  Dialogue from audience to speaker, and vice versa, was fine, but it was difficult to talk to each other.  I hope that the Steering Committee members have some opportunities at various Committee meetings to experience first-hand some of the 21st Century learning modalities that are critical to understanding a supportive, responsible design.

My bigger problem was with the project schedule.  In other project meetings, during a “kickoff”, in addition to reviewing the scope and budget, the schedule is presented.  And, while there was a project schedule presented here, too, it did not contain the sort of detailed, chunked tasks that need to be completed on the journey from kickoff to project completion, with dependencies and resources and other details.  I did not have a good sense of the flow of the Steering Committee meetings, what tasks would happen between meetings with which resources, or what sort of intermediate deliverables would come and when.  What I was looking for was “flow”, the ability to get a sense of the project’s movement through time and space, how they will get to the final design by the end of August.

I applaud Pete Caron for suggesting tours of the buildings, especially for those members who are not as familiar with buildings outside of the ones that their children attend – including the dark corners and hidden closets and secret alcoves.  Even though I am not a member of the Steering Committee, I would certainly like to be offered the opportunity to join them in that excursion!

Finally, with respect to some required schedule juggling at the end of the meeting, the conversation did not appear to be completely well-informed.  For example, does it make sense to show the movie “Most Likely to Succeed” (Thank you, Watertown Community Foundation!) the day after the first Community Forum that is part of this project?  I’m sure that was just a timing and coordination issue, but it did not even seem to be factored into the conversation.  Perhaps I was simply unable to hear through the chaos of multiple conversations.

It was a good start.  Having slides in hand would have been preferred (or at least the electronic version, to refer to).  I also expected that, with a compressed schedule, that every minute would be devoted to working – doing something to keep moving forward.  Both the first meeting of the Steering Committee and the first of only three Community Forums seem to be oriented toward only providing information to the audience.

If someone reading this message is able to include some real work with the Community, while you have them in the WHS Auditorium, then 33% of the time you have with the Community over the Summer will not feel like it was wasted.  And, while I’m wishing on a star, perhaps some creative technology (like Chromebooks?) could be used to help gather opinions or other information, or to teach us something in a 21st Century learning modality – even if the space doesn’t lend itself well to that sort of exercise (it might help the Community to see and feel the difficulty and challenges that WPS teachers have each day…).

Unofficial Minutes: Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee Meeting 5/16/16 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the end of the minutes.

Committee members: Liz Yusem, Chair; Kendra Foley; Eileen Hsu-Balzer; Dr. Fitzgerald; Charles Kellner, Director of Business Services; Stephen Romanelli, Director of Facilities & Transportation.

Audience members: John Portz (SC), Guido Guidotti (SC), Candace Miller (SC), Mena Ciarlone (Cunniff Principal), Elizabeth Kaplan (Lowell Principal), Robert LaRoche (Hosmer Principal), Aaron Dushku (TC), Lisa Feltner (TC), Vinnie Piccirili (TC), Steve Magoon (Assistant Town Manager/Director of Community Development & Planning), Brandt Brisson (WSS), James Cairns (WSS), Peter Caron (WSS), Kate Coyne (WSS), Rebecca Grow (WSS), Margo Guernsey (WSS), Mohammad Sibai (WSS), David Stokes (WSS), Alyson Morales (WSS), Mike Shepard, and others.

Shed at Hosmer

The committee approved placing a shed at the Hosmer.

DecisionInsite Enrollment Update

Dr. Fitzgerald stated that DecisionInsite was on track to present the enrollment study results at the 6/6/16 School Committee meeting.

Master Planning Update

Four proposals were received in response to the Master Plan RFP.  The screening committee, which included Dr. Ftizgerald, Charles Kellner, and Liz Yusem, selected Symmes Maini & McKee Associates (SMMA) to conduct the Master Plan Study.  The firm is expected to start work in June and to deliver its report in the Fall of 2016. SMMA was chosen as being the most qualified and having the most experience. The firm has done similar studies for Belmont, Waltham, Lexington, Boston, and many other districts. Dr. Fitzgerald has been in touch with colleagues in Belmont and Waltham and has received very positive feedback on SMMA’s work.  You can find the SMMA Proposal here.

Kendra brought up the idea of a taskforce, but Liz asked that the term “taskforce” not be used. Liz mentioned that there would be an as yet undefined stakeholder group, but that its makeup and role would be discussed at a future meeting. SMMA will attend a mid-June School Committee meeting to answer any questions and provide additional clarification around community input and other topics.

FY17 Short Term Space Options

Dr. Fitzgerald outlined several different short-term space options that were explored. Bids were solicited for modular classrooms and while the district had some inquires, there were no bids received.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that there were no “turn-key” modular solutions available for September, but said modulars may be an option that is needed in the future. The administration also investigated moving the 8th grade to the high school, the 5th grade to the middle school, and turning the three elementary schools into grade level schools (PreK-1, 2-3, and 4-5).  The option of renting space was also examined. Eight rental spaces were investigated, three spaces were visited, but only one was viable.  The one viable rental space would have provided space for four classrooms (2 good size, 2 small), but the cost would have been approximately $500,000/year and would only be available for one year.  After the full analysis, it was determined that creating space at the Phillips building was the best option.

The short-term plan is to move the Early Steps Preschool (5 preschool classrooms and 1 Connections classroom) out of the Hosmer and into the Phillips building.  The newly freed up space at the Hosmer will house the Lowell PreK, the Cunniff PreK, one Cunniff Kindergarten class, and a Hosmer ELL class, leaving one extra classroom space in the former Early Steps space at the Hosmer to be used if needed. The vacated spaces at the elementary schools will be used as follows: the vacated Lowell PreK space will become a new grade 1 classroom, the vacated Cunniff PreK space will become a special education classroom, the vacated Cunniff Kindergarten space will become a new third grade classroom and the vacated Hosmer ELL space will become a new fourth grade classroom. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that the district would do its best to avoid moving Kindergarten students that have siblings currently attending the Cunniff to minimize disruption to families.

The administration engaged with the Town’s on call architectural firm, Gienapp Design, to examine the available space in the district. On 5/13, the on call architect put together a memo that includes a project schedule, conceptual cost estimate, and fee proposal for construction on the first floor of the Phillips School.  The construction will create three classrooms in what is currently the Facilities area, the current conference room space on the first floor will be made accessible and turned into a classroom (it is referred to as Classroom 101 in the memo), and the former Growing Places space will be made into two classrooms for a total of six classrooms on the first floor of the Phillips building. The total estimated project cost for construction is $523,400.  While the construction schedule is aggressive, it was stated that it would be possible to have the space ready for the start of school in September. There was a question as to what the “Plan B” would be if there were construction delays. There wasn’t a clear response to this potential issue, but that the construction schedule would be closely monitored. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that the district would need to hire1.5 additional teachers, as some current staff can be reallocated (some current co-teachers for example).  Other additional costs that may be needed include a door monitor, appropriate outside play space at the Phillips School, transportation costs that may arise from moving classes from the Lowell and Cunniff to the Hosmer, transporting meals to the Phillips, etc. 

Some concerns raised about the new Phillips space included not having a nurse in the building, if there would be enough handicapped parking, if there was an appropriate outside play area, how the gym would be shared with the Senior Center, how the drop off/pick up process would be handled, would the Watertown Family Network keep its space, where would the Facilities space go, would there be hazardous material cleanup needed in the vacated Facilities space, etc.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that there would be a nurse at the high school for emergencies and that the new .5 district nurse position would also allow for a nurse to be available to the Phillips, but not full time. As of right now, the Watertown Family Network will remain in its current space (one classroom and one office) at the Phillips. That could change if additional space is needed.  It wasn’t clear where the new Facilities space would go, but Mr. Kellner stated that he might have some storage area in the basement in one of the school buildings, but that decision has not been made. Other issues will require further review and discussion, but are being thought about by the administration.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that the Phillips building may become the districts 4th elementary school in the future.  This would require space to be made available elsewhere in order to move the current administration offices out.  Renovating the old police station has been mentioned in the past.  None of this has been decided and would take time to implement.  Expect future discussions on the topic.

Councilor Dushku brought up the plans for lower Common Street and encouraged the district to engage with the Town in the planning of possible fencing and parking lot renovations at the Phillips School. The DPW presentation on the plans for lower Common Street and the minutes from the Committee on Public Works can provide additional information.

The subcommittee voted and approved approximately $70,000 to move forward with the plan.  These initial funds, which will come out of the current operating budget, will be used to have the architect draw up plans. The funding for the actual construction, the additional 1.5 FTEs and any other costs will have to be voted on by the School Committee at an upcoming meeting and then a request will have to be made to the Town Council.

Commentary

 Julie Cotton

Overall, I feel cautiously optimistic about the Phillips plan, given that we see a best-case scenario in terms of construction, planning, and coordination of all moving parts. I am concerned about how many spinning plates seem to be in the air and how much is still unknown-- I understand that this is still the beginning of the process, and though I feel that we shouldn't have had to be under the wire with regard to the timeline of this project, this is where we are now and I'm willing to put my faith in the school leadership and town administrators in getting this done.

Some of the concerns I raised during the meeting and a few others I have are as follows:

  1. Full accessibility of the grounds, including the playground space, for all students, including students with special needs. This means an accessible and developmentally-appropriate playground space and structure, appropriately-sized classrooms, and considerations for the impact of classroom environment on learning opportunities for children with special needs.
  2. Care given to the cleanup of the maintenance equipment that has been stored in some of the classrooms, especially with regard to potential hazardous materials if needed.
  3. Additional costs that are as-yet untallied-- the $530k price tag is related only to the costs of renovation included in the proposed construction budget. It does not include a number of additional costs, including playground construction, transportation, parking lot renovations, and other related costs. I understand that this project has to move through the pipeline quickly to be implemented in time for a September start, but I am looking forward to getting more information about both the additional considerations and their costs.
  4. The proximity to the high school and potential for traffic jams at pick-up and drop-off for some families, especially if high school start times are moved later. I would like to hear about crossing guard plans and some logistics to ease this potential gridlock and safety issue.

A final long-term consideration: Jean surmised that, were she to guess, she could see Phillips becoming a full elementary school sometime in the next 3-5 years. Part of the appeal of renovating this existing school building would presumably be considered an investment toward a viable fourth elementary school option. I think this is a smart idea if it can be implemented smoothly. Given that, I have to ask-- would it only be for a few years that the preschool was housed in Phillips? Would the Phillips building be converted back to a PK through 5 school and the Early Steps program returned to Hosmer (I imagine the vacated Early Steps space is not intended to host the Cunniff and Lowell pre-k and one of the Cunniff kindergarten classrooms for the long haul. Certainly, this question need not be answered immediately while we have this more immediate task ahead of us, but it's worth thinking about as we move forward to long-term solutions.

I do like the idea of the preschool having its own space, and I appreciate the effort given to keeping the pre-k and kindergarten classes clustered and utilizing a previously preschool-aged space. I think that shows a thoughtfulness around appropriate learning environments. 

Alyson Morales

I would like to sincerely thank the Administration and the Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee for all of their hard work putting together all of the information that was presented at the meeting.  All of the documentation made the plan very easy to understand and went a long way towards increasing the transparency of the process.  I would also like to thank Liz Yusem, Chair of Buildings & Grounds, for conducting a meeting that was very inclusive and allowed parents and community members to voice their concerns and ask questions.

Overall, I think the plan outlined last night was a major step in the right direction in order to address the overcrowding/space issues facing the district.  The additional first grade classroom at the Lowell, the third grade classroom at the Cunniff and the fourth grade classroom at the Hosmer, address all of the classrooms, that we are aware of, that were either already projected to be too large or were on the cusp.  The Lowell third grade, which is currently projected to have class sizes of 22, 22, and 23, is really the only other one that seems vulnerable at this point.  The enrollment study, which is on track to be presented at the upcoming School Committee meeting on 6/6, will give us a better idea of how much more space, if any, will be needed for the upcoming school year. This is the big question yet to be answered.

My main concerns moving forward are: what plans do we have in place if we have additional space needs during the school year and what happens if the construction schedule slips?  The current plan allows for one open classroom at the Hosmer that can be used if additional space is needed. It is unclear how this Hosmer classroom would help any mid-year space issue that may come up at the Lowell or Cunniff. There was some discussion about online registration being used during the school year to assign any new students to a school and grade that has space if there is an overcrowding issue at their neighborhood school.  This solution can work, but I see it as less than ideal, as it will raise the issue of potential transportation costs, as well as whether that student can “return” to their neighborhood school the following year, etc.  I wish the Lowell and the Cunniff had a bit more “breathing room” for any unexpected growth. As for slips in the construction schedule, I don’t see any “Plan B”.  There will just have to be very tight monitoring of the project to ensure that there is no slippage in the schedule.

I definitely sympathize with those parents that will have students moving out of their neighborhood school, and I feel these changes would have been easier to navigate had the timing been better, but the district needed to make the best choice that it could under the circumstances.  I am hopeful that the longer term planning will be smoother.

I felt that the idea of a joint School Committee/Town Council/Community Taskforce was pushed off a bit during the conversation last night and turned into a “stakeholder group” conversation.  I consider both to be needed and separate.  The “stakeholder group” can be better identified during the SMMA presentation at the mid-June School Committee meeting.  I would like to continue to encourage the formation of a joint taskforce to address overcrowding/space needs outside and apart from the Master Plan study.  I think it would be helpful to form this taskforce prior to the end of the school year, so that it can have some conversations and be ready to hit the ground running once the Master Plan study is completed.

I encourage parents and community members to stay engaged in the process.  There are still many details that need to be worked out and we will need a plan beyond the upcoming school year.  Community awareness and involvement will be critical.

Minutes written by Alyson Morales

Unofficial Minutes: Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee Meeting on 4/11/16 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes.

Subcommittee members: Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Charles Kellner, Director of Business Services; Liz Yusem, Chair; Kendra Foley, Eileen Hsu-Balzer

Audience members: John Portz (SC), Candace Miller (SC), Guido Guidotti (SC), Mark Sideris (TC/SC), Vincent Piccirilli (TC), Aaron Dushku (TC), Michael Dattoli (TC), Lisa Feltner (TC), Tom Tracy (Auditor/Assistant Town Manager for Finance), Stephen Romanelli, Director of Facilities and Transportation, Brandt Brisson (WSS), James Cairns (WSS), Kate Coyne (WSS), Angelo DeFrancesco (WSS), Margo Guernesey (WSS), Diego Hammerschlag (WSS), Chris Lowry (WSS), David Stokes (WSS), Alyson Morales (WSS), Bob LaRoche, Hosmer Principal, Mena Ciarlone, Cunniff Principal, Robert Varnum, Lisa Hayward, Bruce Colton, Elaina Griffith, Mike Shepard, and others. Approximately 40 people were in attendance.

Plaque Honoring Mr. John R. Burns

2 former students representing a much larger group came from NYC so that they could ask to place a plaque in the Middle School (to be chosen by WPS) honoring Mr. John R. Burns, a former Watertown Middle School teacher and principal, who passed away in October 2015. They read a very moving statement (which is to be the inscription) to Mr. Burns, who they said really influenced their lives positively. A $500 scholarship is awarded in his name each year to a WHS graduating senior who is also a graduate of WMS.

WCAC Television

Eileen, who is the School Committee liaison to the cable access board, brought forth their request to make improvements so that they can broadcast live from a variety of additional locations (WHS Library/WMS Auditorium/athletic fields) at no cost to the schools. The subcommittee unanimously approved to make a positive recommendation to the full School Committee for approval.

Space Options for Short-term and Long-term

Dr. Ftizgerald discussed the enrollment study in progress, which is being done to go beyond the NESDEC Enrollment Study presented in January 2016 and incorporate the projected increases from proposed developments in Watertown, including along Arsenal Street. She hopes to have some results to share at the 5/2/16 School Committee meeting. Also discussed was the Master Plan RFP, which will study the enrollment information and district space needs long-term. The Master Plan RFP is scheduled to be posted in the Watertown Tab on Friday 4/15/16 and will close on 5/4/16. The Master Plan study is expected to start in June 2016, and results are expected in Fall 2016.

Dr. Fitzgerald said that there have been a lot of adjustments made at the Cunniff but "we are now out of space." The district is looking at the possibility of using modular classrooms. A request for a quote for 4 modular classrooms has gone out, with cost information expected back on 4/15/16. No commitment to using modular classrooms has been made, only to gather cost information about the units themselves. She also noted that modular classroom funding would have to come from capital investments appropriated by the Town. Eileen later noted that this request for funding is not constrained by the development of the FY17 budget and can be done at any time.

Dr. Fitzgerald listed a number of the potential options for solving the overcrowding issue that have been considered and why they would not work – using the Phillips School, using other vacant town-owned buildings, changing the configuration of the current schools from neighborhood schools to grade-groupings (PK-1, 2-3, 4-5), and centralizing registration online in order to assign new students to the school where there is the most available space. All of these options come with sizable, and sometimes costly, issues – increased busing, the added impact of multiple school drop-offs on families, and the chance that continued increases in enrollment could prevent these options from being much more than a cumbersome band-aid.

Dr. Fitzgerald said that aside from the Cunniff fourth-grade classrooms and a few others among the elementary schools, "class sizes are overall good and we want to keep them that way." She also said that, with the new configuration at Cunniff after April vacation (in which the floating fourth-grade class will be using the art room), "we're okay for the fall" if no new students enroll, which she admitted, "is unlikely." She doesn't "think there is a need for us to be in a desperate situation" at the moment and said that "this has to be a very fluid process" because enrollment and student needs could keep changing. She is checking in with the Principals for enrollments weekly.

A few parents asked questions and made statements about their thoughts on successful class sizes. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that she thinks the ideal class size is 18-22 students-- she said "18-22 kids is perfect" (she later clarified that it is beneficial in the "lower grades" to have fewer students, but didn't specify if she meant fewer than 18 or on the lower end of the 18-22 range). "We have no official policy" on class sizes. She thought "perhaps the School Committee will want to" take that on and develop guidelines. She also noted that the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) considers 24 students per class to be the “magic number”, above which the school is considered to be “overcrowded”.

Dr. Fitzgerald felt the thing that was "missing" is "an accurate projection of what the future's going to look like for us" in terms of enrollment. Diego Hammerschlag commented briefly on developments in town that might potentially house children who could enter the school system (around 300 units). Dr. Fitzgerald acknowledged that the WPS Administration is working with Steve Magoon, Assistant Town Manager and Director of Community Development and Planning, to get a better count of how many students are coming from recently completed housing complexes (for the expanded enrollment study) because students living in those developments may have addresses listed in a few different ways and that makes it harder to get an accurate count. She doesn't "think we need 3 modulars" but did put in a request for a quote for four of them. She was unsure how long the process of actually purchasing and installing modular classrooms could take if that route is chosen and didn't want to speculate.

Eileen commented on the discussions around the overcrowding topic that she'd been hearing and was "kind of puzzled about the tone of conversations... as if the School Department isn't desperate" to resolve this issue. She also made a reference to the School Committee being the MOST upset about this issue of all players involved (presumably including parents?). She doesn't "know why people don't think we're working on this" and highlighted a need for "administration and faculty" to "figure out what's going to work for teaching." Eileen also spoke several times about the need to get the Town Council on board with funding such a project, and added, "we want to be responsible both to the Town and to the students." She said "nothing is off the table" as an option and that they will need to work with the Town Council and Town Manager to "authorize" a solution. She asked parents to "help us get the message out."

Mike Shepard discussed an idea he indicated he had while he served as Chair of the School Committee’s Buildings & Grounds Subcommittee to build upon the newer addition to the Cunniff, which was engineered to hold a second floor, if needed. He seemed disappointed at the idea that no one had given serious consideration to this idea. Aaron Dushku stated that he "hate[s] the idea of spending money on something temporary when we could be spending money on" fixing long-term issues, and asked people to "bring ideas to [the Town Council]" and also wondered why there was "no traction" on a Cunniff second floor. Liz Yusem responded to the issue of a second level on Cunniff by saying that kids can't be in parts of the building while construction is happening and that, like renovating an "old house," you "don't know what you'll find" and there can be "hidden costs." The rear wing of Cunniff, upon which a second floor could be built, was itself only just constructed in 1997 (as part of the debt exclusion override that will be paid off in 2018); it was unclear what sort of "older home" and "hidden cost" issues she could be anticipating.

Liz also limited the discussion with the audience, including parent questions and responses to the issue fairly early on, allowing just one response per person, and said it would be "better to table [this] whole discussion till the 15th" when we have more information on modular classrooms. However, no mention was made of when the next B&G Subcommittee meeting will be held, even at the end of the meeting.

Candace wrapped up the discussion from the audience by strongly suggesting that with an issue of this magnitude on the table, the Buildings & Grounds sub-committee should be meeting at least once a month. She also noted the discussion had involved several mentions of the Town Council and that 5 Town Council members were present at this meeting, and that they are waiting for a plan to be presented to them.

Lowell Ceiling Repairs

On 3/15, plaster fell through the drop ceiling tiles in the Nurse’s Office at the Lowell School. Charlie noted that upon further inspection with Steve Romanelli, the horsehair plaster delamination was a much broader issue, and not limited to just the Nurse’s Office. As a matter of fact, there were only 1 room on the 1st floor and 3 rooms on the 2nd floor at the Lowell that were not affected by this problem. And, he noted that this was not the first time that plaster had fallen through the drop ceiling at the school. The results of the immediate asbestos testing were negative. $104,000 of emergency work was completed with a waiver of standard procurement methods from the Massachusetts Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) to make the space safe again. The payments to be made from capital improvement monies left over from previous projects, with $2200 from the Lowell furniture replacement for this year to make up the shortfall. He also indicated that additional work will still be required. The Subcommittee unanimously approved the requested method paying for the expenditure.

Garden Plantings at Hosmer

Jean introduced a Hosmer parent who was requesting to begin planning with local landscapers and Mr. LaRoche to beautify a small circle at the entrance to the Hosmer with in-kind donations of plants and labor by the landscapers. He mentioned the possibility of signage, attributing the work and donations of the firms. Jean and Eileen outlined why signage is problematic and listed several alternatives to show the WPS community’s appreciation for their generosity. The Subcommittee unanimously approved for the parent to continue planning and pursuing the work getting done (albeit without the signage).

Shed at Hosmer

Tabled until a future meeting.

Update on Potential Town/School Facilities Meetings

Charlie Kellner, Tom Tracy, and Joe DeVito (Town Treasurer) have had three meetings to discuss the merger of Town and School Facilities functions. These efforts are targeted at cost avoidance and streamlining processes rather than cost savings. Charlie expects to have an update on their progress in the Fall. Liz noted that in other towns, this effort has taken up to 2 years. Charlie brought up the fact that there are also collective bargaining implications, which is part of the reason why the process length is indeterminable.

Commentary

Julie Cotton: 

I'm encouraged that modular classrooms are being considered, and very much believe that at least for the first half of this coming school year, the situation will be relatively unchanged from what it is now-- I can't see any additional space becoming available before January at this rate. I agree with James's comment that as long as we can see a plan in action, it will be at least motion towards a solution. I did not feel fully comfortable with the discourse tonight. I think a lot of parents had legitimate questions that were "heard" and "noted" rather than answered. I think the sub-committee misunderstood that parents actually wanted answers and not just to have their concerns aired.

We were asked several times to support the School Committee in this process but with no indication as to where we should direct that support, and we also were not given enough opportunity to express our concerns.

I would personally feel more comfortable if the sub-committee took time to answer a few uncomfortable questions, such as why this situation was allowed to build over the last several years until we hit a crisis mode. I am concerned that we will never be given a clear answer to that question, and are being asked instead to just trust that this overcrowding issue was unavoidable but will be resolved.

Alyson Morales:

The attendance of many concerned parents, the statements of concern, and the WSS survey information, demonstrates the high priority of delivering both short-, mid-, and long-term solutions. I hope that this urgency is also felt by the School Administration, School Committee, Town Council, and Town Manager. Addressing space issues has been on the back burner for far too long, we need to make major progress in the near term. There are several classes that are projected to be above Watertown's Unofficial Class Size guidelines (PreK: 18; K-2: 20, 3-5: 25) next year, and quite a few that are right on the cusp of turning into a situation like what the Cunniff is facing right now. The need for more space in the Elementary schools goes beyond the class size issue. Children are learning in spaces that were not designed to be classrooms, staff are forced to share small closet like spaces, Special Education classes are taking place in odd spaces, etc. The teachers and principals have put on a brave face and have done amazing things with what they have been given, but it is time for all of us to step up and put solutions in place to fix the issue. Our teachers and students deserve more from all of us. It is not ok to just "survive" this situation as one Cunniff parent said at the meeting. We need real solutions and we are looking to our elected officials and school leadership team to make that happen.

The committee controlled the conversation and was unwilling to let people speak more than once. I, personally, had a lot more to say and more questions to ask about this important topic, but focused my time providing information from the WSS survey and wanted to read as many parent statements as possible. I would have expected that parents and residents would have the opportunity voice their concerns and ask more than one question. This is how subcommittee meetings are usually run in my experience. It is only at full School Committee meetings were speakers are limited in time and number of statements/questions.

I am looking forward to seeing the completed enrollment study that takes the new development into account. It is unclear when the study will be finished. There may be information by the May School Committee meeting, but maybe not.

While, initially pleased to hear that the district was considering modular classrooms as a short-term solution, as the meeting went on, it was clear that the only decision that was made was to cost the option out. The cost estimates are expected to be available 4/15/16. We need short-term solutions that can go up fairly quickly. I personally believe that modular classrooms are the best option and that the space they provide won’t be wasted. We will need swing space when we eventually do some expansion/renovation of the schools. I would like to encourage the committee to think beyond the minimum requirements. These temporary solutions may have to last for quite some time as longer term options are considered.

I was happy to learn that the Master Plan RFP is in process and is expected to be published in the Watertown Tab on Friday 4/15/16. I am disappointed, though, that it took over two months for these things to happen and that we are being told that we may not have a solution in place by the Fall because of lack of time. The Master Plan is critical for long term planning. The debt exclusion override from past school building projects will be expiring in FY18. We need options and their associated costs to address the space issues long term. We may have to fund some renovations/expansions/etc of our elementary schools in addition to the plans for a new High School.

I was surprised by Eileen's “confusion” over parent’s concern and sense of urgency. She stated that of course the schools want to solve the space issues, etc. From where I stand, the schools have known about the impending space issues for some time and have been continuously asked about it. The district has now reached a critical phase, and parents want to see the issue addressed with the same concern and urgency that they feel. There should be no surprise here.

There was also a call from Eileen for the parents in the room to help advocate with the town for funding. The town can’t provide funding before being presented with a plan and being asked. We, parents and residents, can’t advocate without a plan. Watertown Strong Schools, along with I am sure many parents, stand ready to advocate for funds needed to solve the space problems. We are waiting for a plan.

The bottom line for me is, do we want to create a plan that will cram kids into classrooms up to the size limit and possibly overcrowd some that are on the edge, or do we go with a short-term solution that gives some breathing room to both students and teachers. If we assume no major construction, until we can do a debt exclusion override in FY18, how long do our temporary solutions need to hold? Do we just get a few (4) modular classrooms now, and then monitor enrollment closely and add additional ones as we need them, or do we buy a few extra now? I don't know the answer. I look to the administration and subcommittee for answers.

David Stokes

When I first saw the agenda for this meeting, I was surprised how many items were on it. I fully expected that this meeting would be dedicated to the discussion and dissemination of information around short-term solutions to alleviate the overcrowding issue, specifically at the elementary schools. Imagine my shock at seeing it listed as #2 of 7 (originally 8, but Liz indicated at the beginning of the meeting that there was an error, and she struck I.d. from the list). I wondered how long the other items had been waiting to be discussed at B&G, since their last meeting on 01/25/2016.

Clearly, parents and residents need to speak out about this issue. That is why there were approximately 40 people in attendance. I do not think that the turnout and the tone of the discourse should have been a surprise to anyone. Parents are frustrated that no one has moved quickly enough over the last two years to prevent this situation, which has forced our children and teachers into less-than-optimal learning and working environments, and our elementary principals to contort their schools with herculean effort.

Sitting next to Meg Slesinger, the Fine, Applied, and Performing Arts Curriculum Coordinator, during the meeting, coupled with the immediate solution of putting “art-on-a-cart” at the Cunniff for the remainder of this school year (which is the best possible solution I can see), I was prompted to ask my question about how WPS is maintaining its commitment to the Arts education of our students (the “A” in Jean’s STEAM initiative). I asked Jean for a listing of what else was not going to be accomplished next year because of our overcrowding, which I hope to see at the May School Committee meeting, if not before.

To paraphrase one of the other parents at the meeting, we are surviving crisis-to-crisis right now; and, I’ll add, we’ll need some real luck to get through next year without another one. Planning and construction both take time, with many potential interruptions -- time that I am convinced we do not have to waste. How quickly can we solve the problem with both eyes wide open to the short- and long-term physical and educational needs of our WPS community?

WSS is looking around at neighboring towns, to learn from their overcrowding experiences, particularly with modular classrooms. During that research, we came across Bedford, MA, whose School Committee assembled a Space Needs Task Force to organize and analyze the same information that WPS is working to collect around overcrowding solutions, specifically focusing on one elementary school. However, the Bedford Public Schools and their School Committee worked collaboratively with the Town and the parents (who made up 10 of the 15-person Task Force) to report on 4 fully explored alternatives that are articulately presented with compelling evidence. Perhaps Watertown could, at a minimum, use that report as a template, when it is ready to make a recommendation. Personally, though, I would prefer to see a more collaborative process between WPS and the Town, incorporating more parents into the process, with an accelerated timeline.

Written by: Julie Cotton, Alyson Morales, and David Stokes