The League of Women Voters of Wellesley sponsored a School Referendum Forum on February 26th at the Wellesley Free Library. The event, which was live broadcasted by Wellesley Public Media, was attended by about 60 residents. The topic of discussion was a citizen-led non-binding referendum question that will ask residents to recommend either a six or seven elementary school model to the School Committee. The question will appear on the Town Election ballot on March 17th.
The Forum, moderated by former Town Moderator and current Natick resident Peg Metzger, followed a debate-style format in which three residents represented the “yes” side, and three representative represented the “no” side.
The yes side advocates for keeping seven elementary schools open to retain the neighborhood school model as it currently stands.
The no side advocates for building two schools at three classrooms per grade, and for moving from seven schools to six due to declining enrollment.
Each side first made a 10-minute presentation to put forth their positions on the issue. They then answered questions, which each side saw in advance, put to them by the League of Women Voters Wellesley. Finally, they answered audience members’ questions to which the two sides did not have pre-Forum access.
The ballot question:
“Do you believe the Town of Wellesley should keep our current seven neighborhood elementary school model by rebuilding and/or renovating the Hardy, Hunnewell and Upham Elementary Schools, instead of closing one school and redistricting all of our elementary students into six schools? Please vote YES or NO.
A YES vote would advise the Town of Wellesley to retain our current neighborhood school model by renovating and/or rebuilding the Hardy, Hunnewell and Upham Elementary Schools.
A NO vote would advise the Town of Wellesley to close either Hardy Elementary School or Upham Elementary School, without voter input on which school to close, and to redistrict all our town’s elementary students into six schools.”
The yes side was represented by Helen Hamel, Richard Howes, and Jim Marett, members of the Friends of the HHU Ballot Question volunteer group.
The no side was represented by Wellesley resident Jud Jaffe; and Wellesley School Committee members Melissa Martin and Matt Kelley; who also are volunteers.
The “no” side:
Kelley spoke first for the no side, saying that when the School Committee and stakeholders considered how to best manage the school buildings projects, fiscal responsibility and declining enrollment were two factors that drove the decision to move from seven schools to six. “The town has always expanded and contracted its school capacity based on enrollment. We had six very successful neighborhood schools as recently as 2002, before Sprague re-opened.”
Kelley noted that Bates, Fiske, and Schofield have all been renovated and expanded. “Getting to a minimum of 18 classrooms per school has been a 20-year effort in this town,” Kelley said.
Regarding declining enrollment, Wellesley kindergarten through grade 5 numbers were 2,480 in 2008 – 2009. For the 2019 – 2020 school year, Wellesley elementary schools are at 2,094 students. Enrollment projections indicate declines in the years ahead. For that reason, Kelley said, Wellesley should build two schools now — one at Hunnewell and one at either Hardy or Upham, subject to feasibility study recommendation — and a third school when enrollment exceeds 2,350 or is otherwise needed for educational reasons.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) has invited Wellesley into its grant program for the Hardy/Upham project. So in effect, the elementary schools project is split into two projects. The first project is for a new Hunnewell School, which the town will fund on its own. The second project is for Hardy/Upham. The MSBA his will provide roughly 35% of the Hardy/Upham eligible costs, currently estimated at approximately $13 million.
Currently, an expected timeline would be a request for construction funding at Town Meeting in Spring 2021, followed by a a town-wide vote on whether to OK a debt exclusion for the school projects. If Town Meeting agrees to fund construction, and if voters agree to a debt exclusion, then it is estimated that the two new schools would be ready by September 2024.
Jud Jaffe said the plan “…would finally give the 700+ children in the HHU district the benefits of three-class per grade schools that all other Wellesley elementary students already benefit from. Voting no is voting for a plan that is fiscally responsible. Voting no is voting for a plan that recognizes that we can’t rebuild all our schools at once and that it’s natural to have staggered rebuilding schedules…We’re investing in buildings that we are gong to rely on for 50 to 100 years, well beyond the current enrollment cycle.”
The “yes” side:
When Helen Hamel from the yes side presented, she said, “We agree that the HHU schools are in disrepair. We disagree in significant ways with our counterparts and with the Superintendent’s educational plan. They believe you shouldn’t have an elementary school unless it has three classes per grade level. We find nothing wrong with three classrooms per grade level but we also believe that two sections work just fine, as do split classrooms.”
Hamel pointed out that student enrollment experiences peaks and valleys, and estimated that construction of denser housing in town due to 40B projects could lead to an uptick in enrollment. “The bottom line is, we believe it’s important to find solutions to save Wellesley’s seven neighborhood schools.”
Hamel also brought up redistricting and the challenges that Wellesley’s geography poses to such an effort. “Our streets curve, our boundaries are uneven, some neighborhoods are more densely populated than others. But our neighborhoods within them are vibrant and cohesive and it’s important to families in town to keep neighborhood children together in elementary school. Families would rather keep their children in their neighborhood school than move to a fancier brand-new one.”
She pointed out that at Hunnewell, enrollment is projected in 2024 to be at 289 students. “At three sections per grade, that is 16 children per classroom, which is below district guidelines for class size. That’s not an 18 section school, that’s a 15-section school.”
Richard Howes, speaking for the yes side, objected to the amenities proposed for Hunnewell, the size of the proposed 75k square-foot building, and the cost. “The closure plan has taxpayers footing a $12o million bill for two schools so that less than a third of Wellesley’s elementary students can learn math in a STEM room, meet in small groups in their neighborhood learning commons, and go to the learning stairs, whatever those are, while the vast majority of elementary students continue on without access to all those amenities.”
When each side finished its 10-minute presentation, Metzger gave each side two minutes to respond to three audience questions. Those questions had been submitted in advance, and the yes and no sides had seen the questions.
Forum question 1
What are the educational advantages of the model you’re proposing?
Metzger directed the yes side to answer first.
Hamel said, “Our schools are excellent. In 2019 US News and World Report ranked them #19 out of more than 300 school systems in the Commonwealth. We advocate keeping this successful system in place as it has and continues to serve our children well.”
Hamel said that research shows that small schools, defined as those with 350, or even 300 students, have been associated with academic achievement, a sense of connectedness, and social development.
In answering the question for the no side, Melissa Martin said, “Our proposal as outlined is to build two schools at three classrooms per grade, which is indeed the majority model in town. It would equalize school capacity across the district at 18 to 19 classrooms in the elementary schools, which does indeed maintain that neighborhood school model that we all value in this town, including during the 20 years that we had six successful elementary schools prior to reconstruction of Sprague.”
Upham School, a 12-classroom school, is often cited as a challenge because at times the enrollment fluctuates down to one section in a grade. Such a scenario is considered by some to be a negative because students in one-section grades do not benefit from a large number of same-aged peers for social development. Also, one-section grades lead to a lack of flexibility for student classroom assignments from year to year.
Regarding the use of space at the proposed new Hunnewell, Martin said, “We are proposing that we build to state standards for our educational spaces. We will also be building spaces for differentiated teaching for general education students through our break out-spaces. and finally two purpose-built in-district specialized program areas for the Skills program at either the Hardy or Upham site, and the Therapeutic Learning Center at Hunnewell.”
The Wellesley Public School’s website describes five major services that support students with special education needs. The Wellesley Skills Program was brought up at the Forum as one that provides a highly individualized and modified curriculum for students with low incidence disabilities associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Students within the Skills Program struggle with meeting their potential in the multiple skill areas, given the complexity of their disability.
Another program that was mentioned was The Therapeutic Learning Center program, an academic and therapeutic program for students who have difficulty with social problem solving, inadequate conflict resolution skills, ongoing inability to maintain safety with self/others, and/or are behaviorally or emotionally dysregulated and have significant difficulty accessing the general education classroom.
Forum Question 2
What are the fiscal advantages of operating costs, both initially and ongoing, of the plans you are advocating for?
Metzger directed the no side to answer first.
Jaffe said, “The simple fact is that contrary to some folk’s claims the proposed schools won’t be the most expensive in the state. Compared to a proposed three-class per grade school, estimates indicate that building a school with one-third fewer students saves only about 15% on the cost of each school.”
A large part of new-school construction costs go toward common spaces such as gyms, specialty rooms, and administrative offices. “Building three smaller schools will only save about 15% on the costs of the two schools you downsize. From that point, going from two to three schools is going to increase your costs by 50%,” Jaffe said. “In short you’re going to end up with costs well above the starting point of the two-school plan, so we have to be honest that building three smaller schools will cost taxpayers tens of millions of additional dollars.”
The yes side disagreed with the way the no side looked at the numbers. Howes said, “The proponents of the closure plan want to build two massive structures that will cost the taxpayers $130 million, not including the $13 million the MSBA will contribute. Our assertion is that we can build three schools for the same or less money. While we don’t have consultants on retainer, we don’t have architects on retainer, and we don’t have the ability to task town employees with coming up with assumptions that are not part of our plan and making false calculations based on those assumptions, we do have comparable evidence from other peer communities nearby that indeed we can build smaller more efficient schools.”
Howes also cited the environmental costs of potentially having more traffic on the road due to families increased driving to farther away schools; the costs of heating larger school spaces; and the environmental costs of building new structures. “I want to ask what the cost of taking two stories of ledge out of Upham will be, what the environmental costs of clear-cutting that parcel, to blast all of that ledge out to build this new school that they are proposing on that site.”
A recommendation on whether Hardy or Upham school should be rebuilt has not yet been put forth, pending the results of a feasibility study.
Forum Question 3:
What are the environmentally sustainable advantages to your preferred model?
Metzger directed the yes side to answer first.
Jim Marett said, ” When you talk about the environment and sustainability, from a local level small is beautiful. Small has less impact, small is less intrusive.”
He voiced concerns about the impact building at Hunnewell would have on Fuller Brook, as well as concerns about the ledge at Upham and the potential of removing trees at that site. “Further, there’s the issue of driving versus walking. Right now in the Hardy neighborhood there is a wonderful culture of walking, and those students would become drivers in any scenario.”
Marett also suggested that insulation improvements in the existing school buildings combined with the off–site purchase of renewables means the buildings could be zero net energy uses buildings.
Zero-net buildings are those that are so energy efficient that they produce as much renewable energy as they consume over the course of a year.
Martin on the no side said, “We are currently proposing to build two net-zero ready schools and this is sort of a first step for Wellesey moving toward building for the future and building sustainably.”
She referenced the Hunnewell Feasibilty Study, which indicates that a new Hunnewell building would use about 1/4 of the energy per square foot as the existing building. Solar panels are part of the Hunnewell design.
“We have to recognize that even more efficient schools will use a significant amount of energy. The town estimated that operating three new schools in stead of two would create the greenhouse gas equivalent of our residents driving between 400k and 500k more miles per year on the road,” Martin said.
Then questions from the audience were taken. As each side had covered their main points above, I will direct you to the Wellesley Media coverage for this part.
The non-binding ballot question will appear on the Town Election ballot on March 17th, 2020.