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Schools to pursue ambitious building plans

March 28, 2016

The Walpole School Committee is laying the groundwork for another override, but expects it will take at least a few years before voters will get their say.

The School Committee voted Thursday to submit “Statements of Interest” to the Mass. School Building Authority as the first step of what is expected to be a multi-year process to plan for and eventually combine the town’s two middle schools and construct a new high school. Selectmen will be asked to vote on the SOIs at their meeting Tuesday.

School Superintendent Lincoln Lynch said the town’s two middle schools, Johnson Middle School on Robbins Road and Bird Middle School on Washington Street, were identified by the Maguire Group in 2013, and by building and school officials, as high building priorities because they are over-crowded and out-dated.

Bird was constructed in 1961, while Johnson opened in 1967. Neither building has been renovated since their construction. During the School Committee’s March 10 meeting, Lynch said that they were both “outliving their useful life … and are no longer adequate for 21st century educational program for our students.”

The SOIs list a litany of concerns at both middle schools, including an “insufficient” number of parking spaces at Johnson, a computer lab that is “rarely used” because it does not have enough computers for larger classes, and science classrooms that are smaller than state standards require.

The School Committee said the high school, last renovated and expanded in the early 2000s, is too small for a student population of about 1,200, because of insufficient parking, narrow hallways, and small classrooms. The School Committee wrote in their SOIs that even with the 2001 renovation, education needs have changed in the 15 years since, which means the district needs more space for engineering and robotics classes. One area of concern is the media center, which was expanded and modernized as part of the 2001 renovation, but is now apparently too small and does not allow for “collaborative learning.”

The School Committee is hoping to construct a new high school at the site of the existing Bird Middle School, and to convert the high school on Common Street to a combined middle school. It is not clear at this time what Johnson Middle School would become, but the SOIs suggest that it would be “repurposed to meet the growing space needs of the Town of Walpole.” If the building can be repurposed for town needs, it is not clear why it is no longer suitable as a middle school.

The SOIs do not indicate whether the district would seek to relocate the existing high school fields, including Turco Field, to the new high school site, and what would happen to the existing fields at the Bird Middle School site.

The district’s enrollment projections suggest that middle school enrollment is on a decline, which the School Committee believes will boost the case for creating efficiencies by combining schools. Although common sense would suggest that declining enrollment and the resulting efficiencies of combining buildings would also correspond to a need for fewer teachers and lower school spending, that side of the issue hasn’t been discussed by the School Committee.

The SOIs by themselves do not cost the town any money, or create any commitment on the part of the town. But according to Lynch, about 200 SOIs are submitted to the MSBA every year, of which only about 15 will end up being approved each year. Lynch said he anticipates Walpole’s SOIs will not receive approval until at least 3 – 5 years from now. The MSBA requires all SOIs this year to be submitted by April 8. Although the School Committee had initially believed they might submit SOIs next year, they decided to move faster in an attempt to get into the MSBA’s queue sooner.

Lynch said the MSBA is funded from a portion of the state sales tax, which Walpole residents pay into, but should be looking to get money out of. The MSBA would potentially provide grant funding to pay for any school renovations or construction, but he said a local debt exclusion override will ultimately be needed.

The SOIs indicate that the School Committee is planning to conduct a study to examine the district’s space needs that “will create a master plan for improvements based on relative needs and cost effectiveness.”

Lynch said the SOIs will request the MSBA to “partner with us to study our current facilities, and synthesize our elementary projections, our educational vision for these buildings, as well as the physical plant, and the costs associated with that physical plant to determine the best course of action.” Lynch suggested that the only course of action the School Committee would seriously consider is to combine middle schools. Simply doing nothing is an option he wouldn’t recommend, he said.

Selectman David Salvatore became the first member of his board to publicly come out against the plan, objecting to putting all middle school students into one building. “Imagine your 6th grader being thrown into a school twice the size of the current middle school,” Salvatore said on his Facebook page, pointing out that middle school is a time in a student’s education when they are making the difficult transition from adolescence into their teenage years, and shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle of a large school.

Salvatore said the decision to combine middle schools is a question of educational philosophy, not an issue that should be decided by building consultants. “We paid engineers to make school policy,” Salvatore said.

“Both middle school buildings have a lot of life left,” Salvatore said. “As to the high school, clearly it does not need replacing as the plan is to move the middle school students there,” he said.

“Making the change to the middle schools is all about justifying a new high school – it is about creating a showplace. Excessively spending on replacing buildings that have a lot of life left will create budgetary pressures that will make it hard to recruit and retain great teachers. I will take an old building with great teachers any time,” Salvatore said.

Selectmen Chairman Cliff Snuffer, entering the final weeks of his term in office, has previously expressed opposition to the school department’s building plans, but has not offered public comment on how he will vote Tuesday on the SOIs. A majority of the Board will likely end up supporting the plan.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. wboenig permalink
    April 5, 2016 3:23 PM

    “The district’s enrollment projections suggest that middle school enrollment is on a decline”

    I am curious as to what data leads them to this conclusion. I see three possibilities: (a) a shrinking town population, (b) a change in the composition of the town’s populations toward older families and/or childless households, and (c) increased competition from private schools and/or home schooling.

    I am certainly not ready to believe the first possibility, given the new housing construction that is currently happening off of Fisher, North, and High Streets.

    • AWB permalink
      January 9, 2017 6:44 PM

      I think the second possibility you state, changing demographics are at least partly to blame, though those changing demographics are also probably driving more competition with private schools as well, to some extent. The town’s population on the whole is significantly more affluent today than say 30 years ago, with many households having incomes well into the 6-figures.
      As for the middle school and high school debate, I see no sense in combining the middle schools. Building yet another high school, all new, would be enormously expensive, especially given the fact the previous major high school renovation and expansion project hasn’t even been paid off yet (completed in 2003). Yes, some of the facilities are getting old and yes, some certainly need some attention and improvements for space, etc. but lets not cause a situation where we end up needed to build multiple new schools in quick succession.
      If anything, especially given the large amount of land the two middle schools sit on, additions to those buildings would be a much more desirable solution than moving them into the current high school.
      I remember attending whats now Johnson and then the high school, well before the additions/renovations were done. Johnson was still considered ‘young’ and the high school was old, parts of it decrepit and frankly, even back then it was in need of substantial work. I am glad the town finally got to work on maintaining its facilities, many of which are well situated, especially the high school, despite the fact it sits on a rather small plot of land for such a facility. Nonetheless, it really ought to be kept right where it is.

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