Unofficial Minutes: Town Council Committee on Education and School System Matters 4/25/16 – Key Points and Commentary

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

Committee members: Michael Dattoli, Chair; Aaron Dushku, Vice-Chair; Lisa Felter, Secretary.

Audience members: Mark Sideris (TC), Tony Palomba (TC), Dr. Jean Fitzgerald (Superintendent),  John Portz (SC), Liz Yusem (SC), Kendra Foley (SC), Candace Miller (SC), Guido Guidotti (SC), Steve Magoon (Assistant Town Manager/Director of Community Development & Planning), Kate Coyne (WSS), Alyson Morales (WSS), David Stokes (WSS), Mike Shepard, Gretchen Neely, and Charlie Breitrose.

The agenda was to discuss current enrollment projections and physical space for the district.

Councilor Dattoli opened the meeting by thanking the Superintendent and School Committee members for attending and that he was hopeful that this meeting would be the start of a town/school partnership to help solve the space issues facing the district.

Enrollment Study

Dr. Fitzgerald discussed the current enrollment study that is being done by an outside consulting firm, Decision Insite.  Decision Insite will collect and examine data from several sources including the past 4-5 years of WPS enrollment data and new residential development information from the town Community Development & Planning Department.  A preliminary enrollment forecast is expected in May.  It is assumed that the study will not be ready by the 5/2 SC meeting as originally hoped.  A special SC meeting will be scheduled later in May when the study is completed so that the results can be presented and discussed. Dr. Fitzgerald and John Portz are looking to this study as a key piece of information to determine the direction for short term space planning.  A refined forecast using WPS enrollment data as of 10/1/16 will follow in the Fall.  As part of the study, Decision Insite will provide a mapping application that will allow the district to visualize, analyze and potentially adjust its school districting as a result of enrollment changes in different areas of town.  Assuming WPS is satisfied with the study, it is the intention of WPS to continue the relationship with Decision Insite into the future for enrollment forecasts.

Master Plan RFP

The Master Plan RFP was also discussed.  The RFP was released on 4/20 and will close on 5/4.  The goal of the study is to assess Watertown’s current and future space needs and to offer solutions to address those needs.  The study is expected to be completed by September 2016. Alyson Morales asked about the perceived overlap in enrollment studies with the current study being done by Decision Insite.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that the consultants that are awarded the Master Plan study will be expected to look at all of the enrollment data and studies available.  That would include the work done by NESDEC, Decision Insite, and any other available data.

Taskforce

Councilor Dushku asked Dr. Fitzgerald about setting up a taskforce made up of Town Councilors, School Committee members, School and Town administrators, parents, and other interested parties in order to better work together to address the space issues facing the schools.  Dr. Fitzgerald made no commitments, but suggested that such a taskforce would be more appropriate once the Master Plan study was completed.  As part of the Master Plan Study, stakeholder interviews will be conducted.  Candace asked how those stakeholders would be chosen.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that those would be chosen by the School Committee. She also mentioned that once the SOI for the high school is accepted by the MSBA, a building committee would need to be assembled.  Dr. Fitzgerald also suggested that anyone with interest in how the physical space and configuration of classrooms and schools is instrumental in educating our children should read The Third Teacher, which the WPS Leadership team and Administration read several years ago.

Modular Classroom Update

Councilor Dattoli asked for an update on the modular bid.  Dr. Fitzgerald stated that the bid was reopened, as there were no bidders as of 4/15/16.  There have been a few companies that have come to Watertown to look at the sites, but no bids have yet been sent to the district.

Space Options

Dr. Fitzgerald and John Portz stated that the district is looking into several different options for short-term space solutions beyond modular classrooms.  Options mentioned include looking for space to rent; placing new students into schools outside of their official district that have space; and redistricting. Dr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Magoon also discussed options that would be longer term such as moving Central Administration out of the Phillips building and into the old police station, using the empty town library branches as office or PreK/Preschool space, etc.

Process

Alyson Morales and Kate Coyne asked about the process moving forward and the timing.  John Portz’ expectations were that once the enrollment study was finished in May, he would hold a special School Committee meeting to have the results presented and discussed.  He expected that one or two Buildings & Grounds subcommittee meetings would follow in May to further discuss the enrollment study and short-term options with the expectation that a recommendation would be ready to be presented to the full School Committee at its 6/6/16 meeting.  There was no firm commitment given, as it all hinges on the timing of the results of the enrollment study.

The committee voted 3-0 to continue these discussions at a future meeting.

Commentary

Kate Coyne:

It was great to see the town communicating and working with the School Committee and Administration.  This was also a great forum for both the town and public to ask questions and have discussion about town/school happenings.   With that said, I wish the School Committee and Administration had been more proactive in gathering enrollment and modular classroom cost data.   We all agreed we had space issues, why wait to get this important data?  Personally, I believe this is one of the reasons that so many parents came out to the 4/11 meeting to voice their concerns.   We are now squeezed into May to get the Enrollment (new/updated) data and we have no idea if we are or are not going to get bid information on modulars.  With respect to modulars, the bid was closed on 4/15 and reopened, as there were no bids.   We need to look into why we are not getting bids and fix this, otherwise we won't have data to make a sound and reasonable decisions concerning modulars (if needed).  Other communities around us have purchased these, possibly we could inquire as to how they got their bids?  I would hope that in the next 2 weeks we will have more data on enrollment, cost of modular/leasing, and what rental facilities are available in the short term (and at what cost).   The fact that our Elementary schools are packed and need more classrooms is not a new concept, let’s get the data and make a sound decision…in a reasonable timeframe!

Alyson Morales:

While it was great to have a meeting that brought Town and School officials together to discuss the space challenges facing our district, there was really no new information offered at this meeting.  While I agree that the enrollment study will provide important information, I don’t want it to hold up the process of examining short-term space solutions, which has already been significantly delayed in my opinion.  Do we really need to wait for the enrollment study to tell us that our three Elementary schools are at capacity? The NESDEC enrollment study that was presented in January shows growth in PreK-5 enrollment.  The new Decision Insite study is being done because the administration and the SC felt that the NESDEC study didn’t take into account new development in town.  Adding new development to the analysis will only increase the enrollment forecast, not shrink it.  There is no mystery; we are out of space, especially in our Elementary schools.

I remain in favor of moving forward with modular classrooms. I think that each of the Elementary schools could use at least one in order to give them some breathing room.  The Cunniff could probably use 2-3.  While, I am happy to hear that the district is looking into options beyond modular classrooms, I have yet to hear any viable short-term solutions.  If we can find some rental space available, we could potentially move the preschool and PreK in order to free up classroom space in the Elementary schools, but until I hear about space that is available, I am skeptical.  If it is determined that we will move forward with modular classrooms, we need a recommendation ready to be voted on at the June School Committee meeting.  This is necessary in order to have details and costs worked out in time to present to the Town Council in July for a funding request.  This must happen for us to have any shot at getting modular classrooms in place for the Fall (probably late Fall).

Redistricting/moving new students to schools outside of their district into classrooms that have space is really only a band-aid. As mentioned in previous WSS minutes, there are several classrooms throughout the district that are projected to be above the unofficial district guidelines on class size or are very close.  For example, next year all Grade 1 classes at the Lowell and the Cunniff are projected to be above the unofficial guideline of 20 students per class by 2 or 3 students in each class. In other words, the Lowell has 10 too many students and the Cunniff has 4 too many students for a total of 14 between the two schools.  The Hosmer Grade 1 classrooms are projected to have space for 5 more students before hitting the guideline.  Moving Grade 1 students from the Lowell and Cunniff to the Hosmer would not solve this problem, as the Hosmer doesn't have the space to absorb all 14 students without having class sizes above the guideline.

I continue to be left with the impression that the district is opposed to modular classrooms and is looking for ways to make it through the next few years until more permanent solutions can be found, whether that be adding a second floor to the Cunniff, moving central administration out of the Phillips to reclaim classroom space, having the SOI for the high school accepted, or securing funds to do other additions/renovations to the Elementary schools.  While all of those solutions are options that need to be explored, they will take time that we don’t currently have and are more suitable for discussion of longer-term solutions.  These topics were discussed at the January Buildings & Grounds subcommittee meeting and real progress (enrollment study was signed 4/1/16, Master Plan RFP made available 4/20/16, modular bid posted 4/11/16) has only started happening in April. I remain hopeful that real progress can be made during the month of May at the upcoming meetings.  There is a lot of work yet to be done.  I am also supportive of Councilor Dushku’s suggestion of forming a taskforce to work on the space issues, especially in our medium- and long-term planning.

Minutes written by: Kate Coyne, Alyson Morales and David Stoke