As the Town faced increasing infrastructure needs and pressure to tamp down tax increases, the Advisory Committee pushed for revisiting closing a school. Nine years ago when the committee proposed closing a school, the schools formed their own committee which determined it didn’t make sense. This time around, the Superintendent was supportive of a joint effort to take a good look at the potential.
A special subcommittee was born this fall to dig into the possibility. The School Research Subcommittee (SRC) is comprised of two members of the Town’s Capital Planning Committee and one School Committee member. Superintendent Gregory Martineau and the schools’ Director of Operations are also actively involved as non-voting members.
While a formal decision has yet to be made – the committee seems on track to recommend closing one school. [Clarification, that’s simply my forecast that logic appears to be moving them in that direction – not their statement.]**
As part of their research, the district solicited a study to project K-8 student enrollments through 2030. The results reported at this month’s School Committee Meeting weren’t quite what they expected. A consultant from The New England School Development Council projected a steady increase in Southborough public school students over the next several years.
The projected numbers apparently don’t come close to the peak enrollments (around 2004) when the Town built Woodward School. SRC members question if the projections are unrealistically high. (Scroll down for more on that.) Still, they are concerned about the implications of growth rather than decline.
Members noted that if those studying closing the schools in 2012 had the projecting figures, they would have ruled out closing a school. Yet, other factors in consideration are keeping the option in play today.
Chair Jason Malinowski stressed that the situation with the Neary School building is different now. The administration is bringing in a consultant to evaluate the state of the 50 year old building. They expect to have significant maintenance costs for the school including the roof and the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system.
That means that keeping Neary open could be costly enough to consider alternatives. It’s clear that the Subcommittee currently believes the most promising scenario is renovating it in order to reduce costs elsewhere.
The saved costs would be through closing Woodward School and converting it to other Town purposes. It would be part of a multi-pronged approach to handle municipal building needs.
Why could closing Woodward make sense?
Ideally, Martineau would like to reduce the number of transitions young students have to make. Currently, K-5 students change schools every two years. He would prefer keeping 2nd graders with their younger peers, and housing 3rd-5th graders together. He opined that Finn School has capacity to hold K-2nd graders. (Malinowski noted that there is also “flex” room to allow for a future expansion, 1-2 classrooms, if more capacity was needed down the road.)
All agreed that with issues around the Woodward footprint, there isn’t room to reasonably expand that school to add a grade. And Martineau has made clear that Trottier is setup as a middle school, and wouldn’t be appropriate to incorporate lower grades.
That would leave Neary as the best facility for grades 3-5. The Superintendent asserted that if the building was renovated he could fit the grades in the current footprint. (Part of what would make that possible is relocating the Superintendent’s office and possibly even the Extended Day program.) All agreed that there is also room for expanding the building if necessary. Another plus for keeping that school would be that it shares a campus with Trottier.
Meanwhile, the Town has been grappling with how to handle infrastructure needs for other departments and services.
On a parallel track, the Capital Planning Committee has been recommending that the Town sell off its over 100 year old building at 21 Highland Street. The historical “South Union Building” (aka the Arts Center) once housed Southborough Kindergarten. The Town is looking at asking voters to allow selling the building, possibly as an Affordable Housing project. (You can read about that in minutes from a SHOPC meeting in August.)
Selling the building would require relocating Southborough Youth and Family Services and the Recreation Department. The Town has also been looking at the growing needs of its cramped Senior Center at Cordaville Hall.
The Senior Center Center is in the queue for a renovation. (The $25K project to install more bathrooms has been completed. Another project to further renovate the building using Assabet Valley Regional Technical School students has been pushed out a couple of years by the pandemic.)*** Meanwhile staff have worried about the space’s ability to meet the demographic’s future needs as baby boomers in town age even after a renovation. (Note: Part of the projected age shift is due to building projects that would allow seniors to downsize within town, still potentially flipping their single family homes to parents of school aged children.)
Plus, there has been interest in a community center to allow more spaces for public meetings and indoor recreational activities for all ages.
In the long term, the Woodward building may offer the Town the most bang for its buck for municipal facility needs. (Although I haven’t heard it specified, it might also allow selling Cordaville Hall, since Town departments in that building would also be relocated.)
SRC brought in an architect with expertise in municipal buildings. He opined that converting Neary into a space for Town offices and other uses would take too much work to make sense. He didn’t believe that it would be that expensive to make needed changes at Woodward. The building could potentially house Town offices, recreation space, and the Senior Center.
Member Kathy Cook said that after speaking to others with expertise, she wasn’t convinced that converting Woodward to work wouldn’t have a significant price tag. She also opined that the community needs to be presented options including closing Neary instead.
In the meantime, the district is submitting “a letter of interest” to The Massachusetts School Building Authority to look into a project at Neary. (The agency partners with school districts to reimburse a portion of building and major renovation projects.) Submitting the letter doesn’t require making a commitment to act at this time. The hope is to get the letter into the queue without an expectation of a rapid approval.
In last week’s SRC meeting, Malinowski worried that process might take too long, especially considering Neary’s maintenance issues. They hope to learn soon from the schools’ consultant how long Neary can last without significant investment.
If accepted by MSBA, the agency would help the Town evaluate projected enrollments as part of a study. If you aren’t convinced NESDEC’s projections are accurate, you wouldn’t be the only one.
Questioning projections. . .
The contracted study was more in-depth, therefore supposedly more reliable, than NESDEC’s annual projections. The council looked at census data projections for the Town and birth rates in Southborough vs other areas. The consultant then evaluated the impact of real estate trends (including the tendency of aging empty nesters to downsize and sell to families with children), recent building permits*, and the current state of the real estate market in town.
Still, in the follow up meeting, SRC members expressed skepticism of NESDEC’s numbers. Martineau told them that he believes next year’s Kindergarten projections are about 20% too high. He was concerned about those figures rolling into the following 8 years.
During the NESDEC presentation, SRC and School Committee member Keturah Martin pointed out that real estate sales of single family homes in Southborough had risen fairly steadily over the past ten years while enrollment had steadily declined. NESDEC’s John Kennedy answered that was likely a result of Millennials waiting until they were older to start having families.
This week, the Capital committee member Andrew Pfaff publicly wondered if Kennedy made mistaken assumptions about recent building permits as a trend rather than a spike. He noted that there wasn’t enough buildable/zoned land remaining for the recent building boom to continue in town. He also said there was no margin of error specified.
Martineau has agreed to ask Kennedy to reevaluate or explain a number of issues raised by members. (You can read the full report here with my notes on some of the issues raised in that meeting.)
SRC also plans to look at Kindergarten registrations this spring, and hopes to compare some of NESDEC’s base figures to the Town Clerk’s census information and (eventually) the 2020 census data when it becomes available.
*The NESDEC study didn’t incorporate projects still in litigation or without building permits. Since that ruled out Park Central, Cook said she reached out to developer Bill Depeitri to get a projection of how many students his project would add to the schools if built. She said that based on looking at the Madison Place project, he estimated about 100.
Updated (1/28/21 4:17 pm): I added in the table showing the detailed projections, plus the comment Pfaff made about margin of error. To see more background on past years’ discussion about consolidating schools, click here.