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.