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