Southborough resident recommends closing Woodward due to declining enrollment

Above: Data compiled by Southborough resident Al Hamilton suggests a steep decline in the school population (enlarge graph)

The question about whether to close one of Southborough’s four schools is not a new one. While school enrollment has been decreasing over the past several years, the K-8 school committee maintains it’s not feasible to consolidate students into three schools. But one Southborough resident says it’s time to take another look at the numbers.

In a presentation to the Advisory Committee last night, Al Hamilton, himself a former Advisory Committee member, said enrollment data he compiled suggests a “substantial downward trend in school populations” over the next decade. According to census data, Hamilton said enrollment will likely decrease by 35 to 40 percent by 2020.

Hamilton suggested the district should close Woodward and return it to municipal use. Moving the Senior Center, Arts Center, cable TV operations, and other municipal groups into Woodward would allow the town to sell off older buildings and then use the proceeds to fund school operations, he said.

You can read more about last night’s discussion on consolidating school buildings in this article by the Metrowest Daily News. Want to take a look at the numbers for yourself? Here’s a link to Hamilton’s presentation (PDF). You might also want to check out the enrollment projection report (PDF) recently compiled by the school district.

So, what do you think? Is it time to take a serious look at closing one of the schools? Or are you not convinced?

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Tim Martel
10 years ago

I think Mr. Hamilton should have offered as an option that a sizable portion of the proceeds from the sale of the “older buildings” be used to fund improvements to Neary.

Other than that, the presentation is logical given the demographic projections – we already have a single principal that covers Finn and Woodward, so there is already some recognition on this subject from the school committee. It will be interesting to see their response, if there is one. I imagine the tension will center on staff reduction vs. closure of Woodward.

ddubs
10 years ago

I do not believe it is as simple as Mr. Hamilton states. The Woodward School was built using MSBA funds and has a 20 year note attached. The School Building Authority may not allow the conversion of Woodward to another use. Ultimatly they would have to bless such a move and until they do people should not get too excited about this option.

Al Hamilton
10 years ago
Reply to  ddubs

ddubs

I don’t think I ever claimed it would be easy. You are correct that the SBA has a say. In an unconstrained world the best school to close and turn over for municipal use is Woodward. However, if that is not practical then Neary is the obvious candidate. The difference is not that great.

The reality is that we operated in a 3 school format with more students than we have today and less capacity since we were adding on to Trottier at the same time. Next year we will have fewer students in our K-8 system again.

Money is very tight and we will owe our teachers a 7% raise next year and the year after. I think we need to use all our public assets to their fullest so we can have the money to pay our teachers.

ddubs
10 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

The foundation of the arguement as I read it was to use Woodward for municipal offices. I am simply saying this is most likely not possible. If discussion of another building is being made than fine. But what I read in the paper was a proposal to use Woodward.

It will also be a disservice to make such a change and sell town assets if even 10 years from now the town needs additional school space. I believe Northborough went through this and had to buy back a school building that had been sold.

For the town to sell assets to make a budget is bad management. Once the assets are sold the asset is gone and after a budget year the money is gone as well. Using one time money to fund operating budgets is not sound management.

Al Hamilton
10 years ago
Reply to  ddubs

ddubs

I can certainly respect your position re not selling in a down market. The problem as I see it is that to bring these buildings into good shape will require millions. Public construction projects are frighteningly expensive. My best estimate is that we will not need a 4th school for at least 10 years and probably 15 years. I for one am willing to kick that can down the road.

If in the future we need a 4th school and need municipal space I would favor purchasing an existing building that was in good shape rather than building a new facility.

daniel
10 years ago
Reply to  ddubs

ddubs-

You bring up an excellent point re MBSA funds. However, until someone on the school committee brings up this issue with the School Building Authority, we’ll never know.

John Boiardi
10 years ago

Al,

Great analysis. To bad our school committee refuses to budge on their two year old position that three schools is not feasible. The committe does not appear to be able to rebut Al’s figures on the decline in the student population. I thought the quote of the night was. ” I hope it isn’t the town versus the school committee?”. My response is “DAA!!” If it isn’t the town, it’s the taxpayers.

SB Resident
10 years ago

I’m don’t have the time to over analyze Al’s projections, but if there is one thing I’ve learned in life from weather, to stocks, to sales of iPads, projections are meaningless. I prefer to being reactive, when the number of students is N, then we should consider making the necessary adjustments.

One question I would have is, are the 0-4 year populations always lower than the 5-9 and 10-14 sets. Southborough is definitely the kind of town you move to once you have kids, not the one you have kids in. In the same vein, I have a feeling that the economy/housing market has had a significant effect on student populations of the incoming classes. My instinct also says some of the other things in the projection such as socio-economic birth rates etc. aren’t very drastic as the slides seem to suggest.

Regardless of all that the incoming classes ARE smaller (for now) and if it isn’t fully true yet, if the populations don’t change over the next few years, we probably could shut down a school and each year the staff should be adjusted accordingly.

However, I would shut down Neary and mothball it. That won’t save the town nearly as much as Al’s plan, but selling assets for a short term gain is never good for the long term, I’ve seen this mistake made by many towns.

While Al’s heart is in the right place, he is jumping the gun before the real data is in, and wants to sell low, so we’ll just have to buy high later when we need the facilities again. The town isn’t shrinking in housing units, so I have a hard time believing that population trends have changed that drastically and that as the economy continues to improve, that the kids won’t come.

If we are going to fix a problem lets concentrate our efforts on the real problem, the teacher salaries which are completely out of control.

Al Hamilton
10 years ago
Reply to  SB Resident

SB Resident

I asked the same question. Are 0-4 cohorts always lower. That is why I included the slide comparing the 2000 and 2010 census data. In 2000 the number of 0-4’s was roughly the same as the 5-9’s and greater than the 10-14’s in 2010 the 0-4’s are much lower than those 2 groups and the most recent data suggests that trend has accelerated.

My analysis suggests that we will not need a 4th school for 10 to 15 years and that is a long time to mothball a structure rather than use it. Because of the high cost of public sector building my thought was that if at some time in the future we needed a 4th school we could purchase an existing building in good condition for municipal use rather than build a new one which would be much more expensive.

Resident
10 years ago
Reply to  SB Resident

I completely agree with your comments especially on the topic of Neary. My heart started to flutter at the thought of closing Woodward. So far Finn and Woodward have been the best experiences for our family and we couldn’t be luckier to have Mr. Randell managing both schools.

I won’t go into my disappointments of Neary and the facility. But I’d look at closing Neary before Woodward!

Resident
10 years ago

The newspaper reports the school committee’s response to the detailed analysis by Mr. Hamilton as “closing a school is not feasible” and in response to the lack of any response to Mr. Butler’s over due request as “the holidays are a difficult time to get anything done.”

That is the best response to the precise data from Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Butler’s request for information? At least it is an improvement from calling them names like they did to selectman Rooney who also asked questions but was called “irresponsible” for asking them. (Does anyone know if those questions have been answered? I have not been able to find anything)

I have three kids in the K-8 having moved from Wayland. The education they receive is average (I am an educator as well). If the school committee fails to respond to so many outstanding questions, our children’s education will eventually be harmed. Truth and openess is essential, but apparently not a concern of the committee.

Resident
10 years ago

Also, will Advisory request the school committee prepare a budget that has us operating three schools? From Mr. Hamilton’s analysis, I’m not sure how they could fail to make that request unless they dispute the data.

John Butler
10 years ago
Reply to  Resident

Resident,
The Advisory web site southboroughadvisory.com contains current information about the progress of Advisory Committee’s financial work. Three weeks after our request, an hour before our last meeting, I received a call from the School Committee chair saying essentially that, we would receive some information at the meeting, but most would not be available for many weeks yet. (You can read my notes from the call which are posted there.) I indicated that I was not happy with that, and perhaps they may do better. We’ll see.

In a meeting that they requested after our information request, the school committee made it clear that they are anxious about providing data to the public in general, about Advisory Committee’s fully public operation on its web site (everything we do is visible in public) and about this blog. For example they asked whether the data they provide would be posted on that site. This week the chair explained that she didn’t email me because she didn’t want me to post her email. I have explained that in our view the public’s business must be conducted in public, that that is the clear intent of the open meeting law and the public records law, that, further, they have nothing to fear, that this democracy, though frothy at times, ought to be appreciated for the great gift it is and for its historic robust support for education.

As for your your second post, we have proposed to build a financial model that would allow calculation of the variation in cost of operation for any hypothetical distribution of student population by grades. We have explained that, with this, the school committee could then overlay its educational judgment about different configurations, knowing the costs. We have asked for data intending that it be sufficient to build such a model and said that such a public model should be helpful to everyone involved. We do not have an independent view on Mr. Hamilton’s analysis, which was done mostly with state web site data, because we are not yet in a position to assess his analysis, nor the whole situation, because we lack data from the source, the schools.

It is important to keep in mind that the number of schools we operate, although it is a question that we would like to answer, is a fairly small factor in the overall financial picture for the schools. The annualized total value of the question is probably not more than $300,000, maybe much less. By comparison two years ago a cut in the State’s special education reimbursement cost us about $500,000 and its rebound this year will add about $450,000 to our coffers, by our current estimate. (This too is documented on the Advisory web site.)

Another Resident
10 years ago

The idea of just buying an existing building down the road and converting it to a school is pretty ridiculous. Al obviously does not know a lot about architecture. A school is a very particular building type and parents in this town are not going to accept warehousing their children in any old building. A school building is an important educational tool, probably one of the most critica,l and not just a roof over their heads during the school day. In addition, schools have very specific building codes which a general commercial building either will not satisfy or would be prohibitively expensive to retrofit.

Tim Martel
10 years ago

I think Al’s idea was to purchase a building for municipal use, and to move the municipal units out of Woodward so that it can be used as a school once again.

Al Hamilton
10 years ago

Tim

You are correct, I am sorry if I did not express that idea effectively.

LongTimeResident
10 years ago

Briefly, I think this is a good post with some great food for thought. Thanks to Al for caring enough about our tax dollars and our future to put so much effort into his projections. I have a different take on some of the underlying assumptions of those projections though:

1) Although enrollments are down, they are down a pretty paltry 4.6% from the peak. Is that really enough to start talking about closing schools? The projections from the fact finding committee show it MIGHT be feasible by 2014, but that’s assuming that populations continue to contract. I’m not sure 5% in either direction is really enough to support serious restructuring of our municipal setup at this juncture. Now if Trottier or Neary were half empty already, perhaps that’s different. But it seems to be the consensus that is not the case.
2) The Southborough enrollment projections openly state they are questioning about the projected longevity of the direction of enrollment. I would share those concerns. It’s in our history to keep growing both as a town, county and state. Maybe not fast, but growing. I remember when Southborough was just 5000+ people, not so long ago.
3) There are numerous mid to high density projects in the works in Southborough. They are going to bring families, and children, just as all the other projects did before them. This will only accelerate if the real estate cycle becomes more positive.
4) Also, if the projections are accurate, we will save money anyway. A smaller student body will of course require fewer teachers, fewer administrators, without changing student teacher ratios. One might ask (not me, as I think growth will rebound, but someone), that with enrollment already down 100 students, that should equate to 5? 6? positions (based on a 15:1 student:teacher ratio). My math is fuzzy and uneducated but that’s probably a savings of 200-300K a year, much more than what it would save to “close” Neary. Clearly, if enrollment continues to fall, headcounts will need to be addressed.
5) It may also be considered, with local taxes rising, that the very demographics of the town may shift measurably and quickly in the coming decade, as retirees look for more tax friendly towns and downsize, and families move into those homes. That process is on hold for now, but won’t be forever.

Al Hamilton
10 years ago

Long Time

1. The number I have for the 2011-12 enrollment is 1444. Assuming this is correct, and I will check on this, that is down about 12% from our high of 1631.

2. Both the Superintendents estimate and mine used the same basic methodology. We both looked at the number of children in town by year of birth and marched them through the grades. The biggest difference is that I used more current data than the Superintendents report. The Superintendents report uses estimates for the number of children age 0-1 for 2010 and 2011 and I used actual data (significantly lower by the way) provided by the town clerks office. Obviously any projection gets foggier the further out you go but the near term (5 year) projection is quite robust in my opinion which is seconded in the Superintendents report.

3. I did speak to the town planner about the proposed mulit family projects that are currently on the horizon. He told me that these were either senior facilities or 1-2 bedroom units that were not likely to bring large numbers of children to town. He suggested that 50 children would be a high estimate.

4. The state says that we have a student:teacher ratio of 13.8:1. I expect that the number of teachers will decline by about 4-5 per year for the balance of the decade. However, that will be offset by average salary increases on the order of 7% which is basically locked into the just signed contract. The end result is that school budgets will continue to rise even though we are serving fewer children.

5. I agree with you, we have had 4-5 years of a really bad economy and housing market. I think we are in for 2-3 more years of bad housing markets with modest turn overs. After that I certainly hope the we see more turn over but that process will take time. We have an excellent indicator of a return to growth. If we see the number of children age 0-4 begin to rise that is an excellent canary in the mine shaft that will tell us we need to begin thinking about school capacity. However, I think that until the end of this decade substantial enrollment declines are almost certain.

You posit that seniors might move to more tax friendly towns. As Southborough “greys” the residents could well decide to make Southborough one of those towns. We need to use every public asset effectively and efficiently in order to delivery solid value to our citizens and taxpayers. If we don’t then the citizens have every right to say no to the inevitable 2.5 overrides.

Neil Rossen
10 years ago

Can we just forget about the School Committee? They act on behalf of the unions and Gobron. That just has to be accepted. Turn up and vote them all out at the earliest opportunity!

Mike Fuce
10 years ago

AL, That is a really good idea and thank you for taking the time to pull together all the stats that dont lie. Also, keep in mind that many of our school debts will be paid in the next 2-5 years for the schools built. When that happens, everyone should be in favor of then cutting back taxes to the 1994 rate of $11.60 per thousand.

Neil Rossen
10 years ago

I second Mike Fuces’ comment. I trust, Al, that this analysis will be presented at Town Meeting?

Bonnie Phaneuf
10 years ago

When the TOWN required the South Union School (location now of the Recreation Department, Facilities Department,Arts Council and the new Tot playground) a vote to transfer control and management of this propeerty, from school purposes to general town purposes was put forwarded as an warrant article in 2001. The transfer of control of Woodward or any other building under the control of the School Committee would require the same action proposed by the School Committee.
My understanding .

Al Hamilton
10 years ago
Reply to  Bonnie Phaneuf

Bonnie

I believe that all town meeting members have equal status since ATM is a legislative body. I suspect that any member could collect the required 10 signatures and put that article on the warrant. Food for thought.

Bonnie Phaneuf
10 years ago

was put forward in 2001 as a warrant article … comment should have read.

Neil Rossen
10 years ago

Long time Resident. You seem comfortable that the town will force out older residents with fixed incomes by perpetually raising taxes. That is the defeatist attiotude that allows the outsize tax increases and teacher pay awards to occur. I suggest you rethink that complacency.

Sara
10 years ago

Oh, please. Not feasible? I went to Neary when they were doing construction on Finn. My art class was in the cafeteria during lunch hours and they held band practice in a storage closet. They “did it” before with three schools, they can do it again. That is, if they feel that those are adequate learning conditions for the students. I sure hope not. I doubt that the class sizes are going to be much smaller than when I was there, as we had a fairly small class size back then. If they plan on closing one of their schools, they better have a better plan than they did back then.

Carl Guyer
10 years ago

Always be suspect of graphs that do not use zero (0) as their base line. Trends and projections based on charts showing only a partial view of the one axis do create a visual exaggeration of the situation.

Al Hamilton
10 years ago

Carl

There is nothing magic about the number “0”. It is a fairly common practice to scale charts to the range of the data particularly when the variability is on the order of 40%-50% of the full scale as it is here.

My assumption is that the average reader is has sufficient numeric literacy to understand a graph and its associated scale.

The bottom line is that we are graduating 8th grade classes on the order of 160 students and replacing them with K-1 classes that are less than 100. The census data clearly show this trend (that chart is scaled to 0). The inevitable conclusion is that for the balance of the decade we will seen K-8 school populations decline on the order of 50+ students per year.

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