2 Thompson modulars recommended; panel eyes revisiting numbers next October

UPDATED, Jan. 14: The School Enrollment Task Force met Tuesday, Jan. 12, its third session, and heard reports about requested data collected by the School Department aimed at helping to solve crowding issues and to make recommendations for the January Special Town Meeting.

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Arlington town sealGathering in the Lyons Hearing Room at Town Hall, as the audience that swelled to 68 people on a night of nasty weather heard options that had limited impact on short-term enrollment issues, except for redistricting, and that could not be put into effect soon.

Looming over the discussions of administrative measures and modular classrooms was the need to address long-term solutions for the increase in enrollment and the possibility of new construction. Some members argued that just as pressing as the needs of East Arlington were the pressures of enrollment on the Ottoson Middle School.

Finally, the task force members passed a motion to support renting two modular classrooms for the Thompson School for 2016-2017 and continuing for three years, if needed. No provisions were made for expanding the already overcrowded core areas of Thompson.

Poor weather does not deter audience

Selectman Joe Curro chaired the meeting because the town manager was unable to attend. Also absent was John Cole of the Permanent Town Building Committee.

Despite the sleet and cold, 37 were present at the beginning of the meeting, and their number quickly grew to 68, causing some to stand in the back and congregate in the doorways. Most were parents from East Arlington, and at least three brought their school-age children.

Curro opened by announcing that the committee had both short- and long-term tasks. For the short-term, the committee needed to make recommendations to the Special Town Meeting scheduled for Monday, Jan. 25.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathleen Bodie was asked to present the report on the data collected. She followed closely a handout with three sections:

-- Cost of Option to Bus One Grade from Thompson to Peirce in 2015-2016;

-- Thompson-Hardy District Pros and Cons; and

-- Option to Redistrict 5 of 7 Elementary Schools, which included two maps.

The handout was available at the back of the room and is online (see all enrollment links here >>).

Pros, cons discussed

Bodie’s presentation of the data included an extensive discussion of the pros and cons of each option as listed on the handout. She also elaborated on each one and included her own assessment of the viability of the option, both in terms of implementing it and then its effectiveness in solving the enrollment issues.

Option One, busing one grade from Thompson to Peirce, with either one or two buses presented, Bodie said, "challenging logistics." These included affecting families with more than one child, the after-school program and arranging for music and art instruction. It would be a very short-term solution at best, she said.

School Committee member Cindy Starks voiced her concern about the impact on learning with frequent moves among schools.

Charles Foskett, chair of the Capital Planning Committee, replied: "I dispute the idea that busing is harmful … It is not the end of the world. Stop being totally negative about reasonable alternatives."

Starks responded that "it is not busing itself, but this way would uproot an entire class of kids for one year."

Option II: Combining districts

Bodie moved on to Option II, Combining the Thompson and Hardy Districts. She reported that it had the potential of reducing the number of needed classrooms. However, it would be a short-term solution if it worked because of projected increase enrollment.

The total enrollment would soon be 1,000 students, requiring 44 classrooms, and the combined schools would have only 40 so "down the road [we] will still be shy four classrooms."

Other impediments include the long distance to school for many students and disruption of the students' education by dividing grades k-2 and 3-5. It was, she concluded, "not an ideal solution."

Option III: Redistricting

Option III, redistricting, would redraw district lines in a "pinwheel," while enlarging the buffer zones, offering a way to maximize the use of classrooms over time but could not address short-term problems.

School Committee member Jeff Thielman reminded the task force members that redistricting would take at least 1½ years and would in the short term violate school department policy that a student can remain in the same school until the fifth grade.

Foskett replied that enrollment is not just an East Arlington problem but one for all of Arlington. The financial pressure is large, he continued, as the town could face 30- to 50-percent increases in taxes, so he urged looking at all possible solutions.

The cost of modular classrooms, a short-term solution for enrollment at the Thompson School, was reported to be around $400,000 for one to three years. The figure is for installation, rental and takedown of two modular classrooms.

The task force turned its attention to a motion for the town to rent two modular classrooms for the Thompson school to be installed for 2016-2017 and to continue in use for three years if necessary.

Tosti made this motion and then added two other parts: that the school department continues to investigate administrative solutions to the enrollment issue and that the committee meets again in October to discuss the situation at Thompson when new enrollment date is available. The discussion about this last section concluded that the Thompson could still be discussed earlier and perhaps money allotted for a planning study.

After the motion was adopted unanimously, discussion followed about the need to focus on the middle school and to be ready to make recommendation at the annual Town Meeting in April.

Audience comments

Curro then opened the meeting to the audience. Among the comments:

-- Concern that School Committee should move forward on funding the design phase of the Thompson so the costs will be known before the regular Town Meeting;

-- The importance of making a decision about the former Gibbs Jr. High before 2017 in the event Lesley Ellis private schools leaves;

-- A survey by the Arlington School Enrollment Community Group, East Arlington parents, about the desirability of the Gibbs indicates it is favored as additional middle school, but many more people need to participate in survey for more valid results (see the survey here >>); and

-- Hardy parents announced that their school had its first meeting on enrollment issues Monday, Jan. 11. Those in attendance indicated they do not oppose having Hardy students attend Thompson for enrollment reasons but are concerned about wanting the town to move to a design phase for the Thompson permanent addition, and there was general support for a middle school at the Gibbs.

At the table for the task force were:

• Joe Curro, Board of Selectman (Facilitating meeting in lieu of Adam Chapdelaine)

• Jeff Thielman, School Committee – Secretary (chair of meeting in Cindy Sparks absence)

• Bill Hayner, School Committee

• Cindy Sparks, School Committee

• Bill Hayner, School Committee

• Jeff Thielman, School Committee (partial attendance)

• Charles Foskett, Capital Planning Committee

• Allan Tosti, Finance Committee

• Kathleen Bodie, Superintendent of Schools

• Diane Mahon, Board of Selectman (partial attendance)

Not present:

• Adam Chapdelaine, Town Manager

• John Cole, Permanent Town Building Committee

The next task force meeting is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23, in the Lyons Hearing Room, Town Hall.

Jan. 14, 2016: Parents' group summary of Jan. 12 meeting

Jan. 6, 2016: With parents' help, search for enrollment solutions turns to East Arlington

Dec. 21, 2016: Addition backed for Thompson; PARCC testing gets go-ahead
Arlington School Enrollment Community Group |   Group's Facebook page
Dec. 14, 2015: Variety of views offered as task force grapples with growth

The report was published Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, and updated Jan. 14, to add a link. Notes were collected by Jo Anne Preston; she and Bob Sprague wrote it.