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.


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