Unofficial Minutes: Town Council Budget & Fiscal Oversight Committee 2/29/15 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are not official minutes.

Committee members and others at the table: Vincent Piccirilli (Chair), Angie Kounellis (Vice Chair), Ken Woodland (Secretary), Mike Driscoll (Town Manager), Tom Tracy (Auditor/Assistant Town Manager for Finance), Town Treasurer, Dr. Jean Fitzgerald (WPS Superintendent), and Charles Kellner (WPS Business Manager).

Attendees in the audience: Mark Sideris (TC president), John Portz (SC Chair), Kendra Foley (SC Vice Chair), Eileen Hsu-Balzer (SC), Liz Yusem (SC), Julie Cotton (WSS), Rebecca Grow (WSS), Alyson Morales (WSS), and David Stokes (WSS).

This meeting was held to discuss the Watertown Public School (WPS) FY 2017-2021 Capital Improvement Program (CIP). There was also discussion of previous fiscal years’ spending going back to FY13.

FY13-FY16 CIP

Tom Tracy, Auditor/Assistant Town Manager for Finance, discussed School Department Active Capital Projects Funds As of 2/29/16, which was presented as a handout.  This document outlined capital project budgets, expenditures and available funds.  According to the document, total funds available from FY13-16 Capital projects total $447,128.42. There were some questions about these available balances.  Were some projects not completed, were some diverted to other projects, is some of the information incorrect? Mr. Kellner, WPS business manager, will investigate further and report back to Mr. Tracy his findings. Some of the projects are from before Mr. Kellner joined WPS (summer 2014).

FY17 CIP

The following is an overview of $858,600 in capital projects slated for FY17.

Cunniff ($45K)

-   Replace classroom furniture $10K

-   Replace carpet in main office and room 155 $5K

-   Replace Cove mid section doors $30K

Hosmer ($76.6K)

-   Update building furniture $20K

-   Replace Emergency Alarm Panel $22.5K

-   Effervescence Cleaning (walkway to auditorium) $14K

-   Replace Stucco Spandrels $20K

Lowell ($195K)

-   Replace and update classroom furniture $15K

-   Install A/C in Main Office & Nurse Area $18K

-   Replace building carpet $122K (project will continue into FY18 $97K)

-   Repair windows $40K

Middle School ($122.5K)

-   Replace and update classroom furniture $17.5K

-   Renovate Science Lab equipment $75K

-   Replace exterior lighting and timing system $15K

-   Renovate Kitchen area into classroom $15K

Note: Middle School MSBA Window replacement project is slated for FY18. The town’s portion is projected to be $1.54M. The loan order for the full amount ($3M) will have to be authorized by the Town prior to July 1, 2016 as part of the MSBA process.

High School ($79.3K)

-   Replace classroom furniture $20K

-   Repoint brick near teachers’ cafeteria & auditorium $59.3K

Phillips School ($7.5K)

-   Furniture/Equipment/Furnishings $7.5K

District ($332.7K)

-   Replace Maintenance vehicle $45K

-   Update Food service equipment $19.2K

-   More Cameras/District Audit $11K

-   Centralized ID system $6K

-   Design Sub-Division of Early Steps Space $10K

-   Intercom/Bell Systems – System wide $36.1K

-   School Technology $200K

FY17-21 CIP

The total projected expenditures for all schools FY17 - FY’21 are as follows:

CUNNIFF— $166,200

HOSMER— $1,817,600

LOWELL— $421,000

MIDDLE SCHOOL— $4,943,700 ($3M of this is for new windows and a subsidy is being sought through the Mass School Building Authority to offset these costs by nearly half)

HIGH SCHOOL— $778,800

PHILLIPS SCHOOL -- $279,500

DISTRICT -- $1,351,200

TOTAL – 9,758,000

District Physical Space Discussion

Councilor Piccirilli asked the schools about a 5-year plan to address space issues.

School overcrowding was discussed. Superintendent Fitzgerald responded to a question about available space by saying that all schools are currently at full capacity. She is looking at different options for meeting overcrowding concerns and said that “nothing is off the table” in terms of potential options. There is already an RFP in progress.

The middle school and high school are at capacity like the rest of the schools, though Superintendent Fitzgerald mentioned the possibility of scheduling classrooms “100% of the time”. That means some teachers would have to leave their classrooms for a time while another teacher and class used it, and that doesn’t leave a space for those teachers to use during that time. She also mentioned that some non-classroom spaces such as hallways are being used as learning and studying spaces by students.

Councilor Kounelis asked about the possibility of offsetting school overcrowding in the lower grades by shifting 8th graders to the high school and 5th graders to the middle school. She said this option was suggested years ago but never done. Superintendent Fitzgerald said this is no longer a possibility due to the current size of the student body. It could be a consideration in the future if Watertown was able to build a new high school, which could be made big enough to accommodate more students.

There was a discussion concerning new development and needing data from the town indicating how many are likely to house families with children. The Town Manager stated that the town has tracked how many children reside in the different apartment complexes and has passed that information on to the schools.  He is looking into the most recent information and will pass it along.  Councilor Piccirilli stated that 40% of the new development is 2BR units, while 60% are 1BRs or studios.  It was also stated that the Bell Apartment have some 3BR units. The question was raised, what is the total number of units those percentages should be applied to?  That information was not immediately available. Councilor Woodland suggested that overcrowding — the 4th grade at the Cunniff— might be due to an unusually large number of 4th graders in that part of town and not to an increase in enrollment from new housing developments bringing in more families. Superintendent Fitzgerald said that it just happened that many of the new students entering the Cunniff this year were from housing developments and happened to be in 4th grade.

In the audience, Eileen Hsu-Balzer, School Committee member, added that it was not just “kids’ bodies” in classroom spaces, but curriculum and specialists, and that combining groups of kids into a single room while doing different lessons simultaneously would be disruptive and not conducive for learning.

Also in the audience, Elizabeth Yusem, School Committee member, mentioned modular classrooms, but felt they were “not a good solution” because of the projected cost to lease them. She suggested that the Master Plan study for which an RFP is in progress, should help determine the best option for the students.

The discussion moved back to the need for a long-term plan.  The current debt exclusion override will expire in 2018.  Watertown needs a plan before it expires, because if we are accepted into the MSBA program for a new high school a new debt exclusion override will be needed.  The town seems eager to work with the schools on a plan. Superintendent Fitzgerald is currently working on the SOI for the high school and will work on the RFP once the SOI is complete.

Stamatakis Playground

Councilor Piccirilli mentioned the Stamatakis Playground (the smaller playground used by the preschool at the Hosmer School). $640k had been donated and $56k has been allotted for resurfacing the playground area, converting it from wood chips to a blue rubberized surface. Mr. Kellner said this was an “open item” because it had not been done yet, but was investigating as he could not find a record of the $56k. He said that to his knowledge, there was “no capital money left” for that project. He suggested that there may be other monies available that could be repurposed for this project. It was also suggested that the money for the Stamatakis Playground may be tied up in the nearly $448k from FY13-FY16 overage. Mr. Kellner said that the playground was “not listed at all” in the paperwork he inherited when taking his position in 2014.

A design firm did a pro-bono design of the playground that incorporated a bike path around the structure, but because of liability for drainage issues, they did not release the design to bid.

School Committee member, Eileen Hsu-Balzer asked about the ownership of the playground and who it is that maintains the other playgrounds in town. It seems that most are under the purview of the Recreation Department, but Stamatakis and one or two others belong to the School Department. She suggested it might be best to have all of the playgrounds belong to a single department. School Committee member Kendra Foley also agreed with this. She also suggested the Watertown Commission on Disability may be able to help, as the playground was designed to be accessible to children with special needs.

Town Manager Mike Driscoll expressed agreement with the idea that the town take over the playground.

In the audience, Town Council President Mark Sideris made a recommendation that Town Manager Driscoll and Superintendent Fitzgerald further discuss this matter.

Commentary

It is a bit disconcerting that there is nearly a half a million dollars in pending capital improvement projects, some dating back to FY13.  We hope that some are simple accounting errors and that the matter is able to be resolved in a timely fashion and that pending projects will be completed quickly.  We assume that having a vacant facilities manager position makes these issues even more challenging.

We are encouraged by the town’s strong interest in working with the school department to work on a plan to solve the district’s physical space issues.  We feel that both sides are motivated to solve the issue.  While we understand that central administration is currently understaffed due to several vacant positions, and that getting a well written SOI is a priority, we are concerned that the timeline for the Master Plan RFP may not yield results in time to solve short term space issues this coming Fall.  We have learned since this meeting that the SOI is expected to be finished and voted on at a School Committee meeting on 3/14.  We hope that as the RFP becomes a priority and is worked on, other short-term solutions can be explored in parallel, so that at least a short-term plan can be ready for the start of the new school year.

Minutes written by: Julie Cotton and Alyson Morales