LETTER: Current State of Watertown Schools, Prepping for July 27 Community Forum

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Watertown Strong School parents group provides detailed highlights of and a commentary about the most recent School Master Planning Design process.

Unofficial Minutes: Meeting of the Steering Committee of the Master Planning Design Process on July 19, 2016 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes. Commentary can be found at the bottom of the minutes.

Written by: Kate Coyne and David Stokes

Committee members: John Portz, Co-chair; Dr. Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Vincent Piccirilli, Town Council Vice-President; Michael Dattoli, Town Councilor; Steve Magoon, Assistant Town Manager and Director, Community Development and Planning; Toni Carlson, K-12 Educational Technology and Library Coordinator; Alyson Morales; Mike Shepard; Elaina Griffith; Chris Lowry; and Lindsay Mosca.

Absent members: Liz Yusem, Co-chair; Charles Kellner, Director, Business Services; Deb King, WEA President and WMS teacher; Dr. Kimo Carter, WMS Principal; and Pete Caron.

Audience members: Kendra Foley, School Committee Vice-chair; Candace Miller, School Committee; Mark Sideris, Town Council President; Jim Cairns, WSS; Kate Coyne, WSS; David Stokes, WSS; John Labadini; Elodia Thomas; Christie Fisher, WPS Administrative Assistant; and other community members.

Building Tours Discussion and Feedback 

Steering Committee members that were able to attend the building tours provided impressions and feedback to SMMA.

Lindsay Mosca:

Cunniff: classrooms were small, the building felt strangled, there were limited options to expand

WHS: lack of dedicated teacher collaborative space

Michael Dattoli:

Agreed with much of Lindsay’s feedback and saw a lot of opportunity overall

WHS: lots of dead space

Hosmer: possible conversion of extra gym. Is the school getting too big? Does it have too many students?

WMS: possible conversion of extra gym

Cunniff: very small

Steve Magoon:

Overall the schools were not in bad shape

All of the Elementary schools are using all available space

Lowell: no options to expand

Hosmer: no options to expand

Cunniff: second floor a possibility

WMS: opportunities for expansion, single level addition, small gym, courtyard

WHS: not as fully utilized, has maintenance issues

No buildings need to be knocked down

Chris Lowry:

Agree with Lindsay that we need to ensure we have spaces for teachers to collaborate.

Cunniff is at its limit

Hosmer is getting maybe too big?

Offered a “pie in the sky” thought: maybe raze the Cunniff and rebuild with better spaces, three floors, parking underneath

Lowell used up all of its space, but has nice space.

Redo the Hosmer addition to make better use of dead space

Elaina Griffith:

WHS layout is poor and the space challenges are different than at the Elementary schools

Vincent Piccirilli:

Cunniff: built on underground stream, building is damp

WHS: 1979 addition created bad triangular spaces; the vocational wing also has space issues. Demolish those two wings and create something in its place.

Hosmer: has its peculiarities

What are we going to do with our early education?

Take preschool/PreK out of Hosmer and put it somewhere else to free up space.

WMS: in good shape, needs a little more space.

John Portz:

Sees opportunities: another floor at the Cunniff, turn the Hosmer old gym and the space in front of the auditorium into a better use of space.

Are the older buildings worth renovating? When do you decide to build a new school?

He will talk to the Superintendent about setting up more tours to see the buildings at future “decision points.”

Enrollment Discussion

Michael van Hamel, SMMA Associate Architect, gave a bit of background on the latest enrollment forecast provided via handouts. Michael and Dr. Fitzgerald spoke with representatives from both NESDC and DecisionInsite regarding the enrollment forecasts and were able to gain some deeper insight.

Some of this information was provided at the previous night’s School Committee meeting. New information provided at tonight’s meeting was the enrollment forecast broken down by grade and school. It was stated that the ideal Elementary school size is somewhere between 350 and 500 students and that the Hosmer is getting too big as it is nearing 600 students. The enrollment forecast provided will be used as input into the Master Plan process.

Preview and Discussion of Building Options

Michael van Hamel started by going over the proposed space summaries provided as handouts. There was a space summary provided for each school, describing existing conditions compared to MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) standards for new construction. The handouts are based on the MSBA worksheet that determines number of classrooms, overall space requirements, etc. based on intended student enrollment. The information was provided for current enrollment and future enrollment projections.

A summary of how the total space in each school compares to MSBA standards for new school construction in terms of square footage is as follows:

Cunniff: Net floor space is generally undersized. Total building gross floor area is generally undersized.

Lowell: Net floor space is generally undersized. Total building gross floor area is generally oversized.

Hosmer: Net floor space is generally oversized in the near-term and becomes undersized as enrollment assumptions increase. Total building gross floor area is generally oversized.

WMS: Net floor space is generally oversized. Total building gross floor area is generally oversized.

WHS: Net floor space is generally oversized. Total building gross floor area is generally oversized.

Michael then walked the group through images of each school and described some options that SMMA has been considering. The images showed the additions/changes to the buildings as blocks to demonstrate massing (also called “volumetric views”), rather than a more-detailed, in-depth design. Some key points from the discussion are as follows:

Cunniff: The addition of a second floor on the new wing could increase capacity to 450 or possibly 500 students. Adding a second floor to increase capacity does not address the issue of an undersized gym and cafeteria. The gym could be expanded slightly towards the back of the building. SMMA would have to look into options for the cafeteria. A two level cafeteria may be possible, but is not usually something done for Elementary Schools.

Lowell: The School Department owns the lawn in front of the school on Orchard Street An addition could be appended to the front of the building with some terracing into the lawn. There is also room for an addition near the parking lot space by the small playground.

Hosmer: The dead space near the auditorium could be redone and there is an option for a single story addition in the area near the corner of Boylston Street and Chauncy Street.

WMS: Renovate old (“little”) gym (right below the library) into a library/media center? Make use of courtyard space? Possible addition on Bemis Street and Westminster Avenue corner of the building? The building, especially the old West Jr. High portion, could benefit from a lot of interior renovation.

WHS: The former vocational technology wing can use some renovation. Lots of space is underutilized. The building needs a good interior renovation.

The discussion then turned towards what the town’s goals were for the Elementary schools. The 3 schools currently have significantly different capacities – the Cunniff having the smallest number of students, and the Hosmer having the largest. There was an overall agreement across the Steering Committee to move towards a goal of rebalancing the schools and the associated school “attendance areas”. Overall consensus was to try to move toward school capacities of 400 students for the Cunniff, 450 for the Lowell and 500 for the Hosmer.

Additionally, Vinnie Piccirilli raised the issue of the movement towards Universal PreK across the Commonwealth in the future (in, perhaps, 5 years down the road) and what implications that might have for the current planning as part of the Master Plan. Dr. Fitzgerald said that she would provide additional information to SMMA on what the projected enrollment numbers would possibly look like for Universal PreK and growth in the preschool, in order to assist with the planning.

Upcoming Community Forum Preparation

The discussion then moved to the information that will be presented at the upcoming Community Forum (on July 27 @ 7 p.m. in WHS). SMMA acknowledged that they will provide the following items during that Forum:

1. An overview of the process

2. A summary of what was learned at the first Community Forum via word clouds

3. A summary of what was learned from discussions with the Educational Leadership team

4. Information on the enrollment forecasts via graphics

5. An overview of the options being discussed.

Vincent Piccirilli requested that documents be available on the website a few days before the Community Forum, so that community members would have an opportunity to preview the information prior to attending the Forum. Steve Magoon asked that the building options be depicted in a bit more realistic manner, particularly with respect to actual placement in/on/around the building, rather than as stand-alone blocks, in order to make the information easier to understand.

Questions/Feedback From the Audience

The discussion was opened to the public for comment and questions. Kate Coyne felt that the rebalancing idea was great, but requested that the Committee keep in mind the impact on the gym and specials classrooms (as they may need to be larger in size and/or number).

Elodia Thomas asked for better communication with the community. She stated that she had heard from some teachers that they were unaware of the process. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that she sent a personal letter to teachers letting them know about the process and inviting them to participate. Elodia asked that the word get out to PTOs as well, so that they could help spread the word. Elaina Griffith offered to spread the word with the PTOs. Elodia also asked that a better description be sent in an easier-to- understand, more engaging manner. She felt that the message announcing the last Community Forum was not descriptive enough with regard to the process to impart the importance of attending to Watertown residents.

Dr. Fitzgerald agreed to work with Steve Magoon on messaging and would send the message out through the Town’s “NotifyMe” messaging system. Dr. Fitzgerald stated that she is currently unable to send out district-wide emails to parents, as the District is in the middle transitioning from the old iPass system (which has already been turned off) and the new PowerSchool program, which is not yet up and running.

Vincent Piccirilli asked if the Steering Committee members would be able to take with them a copy of the school floor plans which were color coded to show undersized and oversized classrooms according to MSBA standards. He was told no by Michael van Hamel, Dr. Fitzgerald, and John Portz, due to safety concerns about sharing detailed floor plans of school buildings. Some members felt that it was against the law to release them, but Vinnie explained the law around public records and noted that the law says the Superintendent shall decide whether she wants to release them or not.

He pointed out that Town Councilors, Town employees, and members of other public bodies often have to deal with confidential information, and he felt the Steering Committee could be trusted with the information. He further explained that the law specifically, and unusually, stipulates that giving one person this sort of sensitive information does not set precedent, such that all persons who request must receive the same sensitive information. Nonetheless, the Superintendent decided to err on the side of caution, as she was concerned that if anything happened due to the release of the floor plans, it would be her responsibility, and she was not willing to accept that level of risk. In the end, she asked Michael van Hamel to alter the level of detail of the floor plans and to provide the information at a future meeting in a way that would not be a safety risk. He agreed to do so.


David Stokes

This meeting, as someone else has already said to me, is the meeting that I expected two meetings ago. SMMA asked the Steering Committee for actual input (not just factual, historical information), and real decisions were finally made.

In addition, I found the feedback and impressions from the tour to be very informative. I am somewhat familiar with the Cunniff, the Hosmer, and WHS, and am more intimately familiar with the Lowell and WMS. However, I certainly could follow along. I might suggest that some of those impressions be assembled into a “guided tour” of sorts for the second Community Forum. I am sure that many parents are not as familiar with all five schools as the Committee members are that took the tour. That sort of “guided tour” might provide better context as the discussion builds to SMMA’s presentation around the renovation and rebuilding options that they are currently exploring.

The slight drawback to this meeting was the devolving discourse at the end, regarding the Steering Committee members’ receipt (and use outside the Committee meetings) of school floor plans. People escalated to talking (and then shouting) over each other and not listening to one another. The Co-chair appeared to have lost all control at one point, when decorum had seemingly flown out the open windows. It was not a pretty sight. No one seemed to be searching for the middle ground, for compromise. As an Information Security Manager for a Critical Infrastructure utility (where a security breach can become a public health issue for literally millions of people) with 14+ years of experience, I know for a fact that there are tools and techniques that can be employed to provide information in a secure fashion to a limited audience, even in an electronic format. But no one asked me. I wish someone had.

Shifting focus back to the more positive energy of the meeting, I have high hopes again for the second Community Forum. I heard mixed messages from those who were able to attend the first Community Forum – many good, and some not so good. But, in this case, past performance does not have to predict future outcomes. Therefore, I have high hopes again.

Now, I know that not every parent and member of the Watertown community has the time to devote to these sorts of meetings. But, if you want to give your input into the way your WPS schools will evolve over the next 10 years, I urge you to find a way to come to WHS @ 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 27. I look forward to seeing you there and listening to your thoughts and reactions to SMMA’s presentation!

One thought on “LETTER: Current State of Watertown Schools, Prepping for July 27 Community Forum

  1. According to the 2016-17 budget education expenditures are 34.8% ($43, 952,000) of the town budget of $126, 306,000. This figure does not include insurance, benefits, and retirement costs.

    To upgrade our schools be it some combo of renovations, additions, or new construction will involve a debt exclusion, i.e., a tax override/increase. I have been told that the cost for a new elementary school is in the $30-35 million range, a new high school around $120 million.

    We need to understand the various school needs, options, and costs and we need to come together as a community with common sense, creativity, and transparency to move forward. There is so much talent in Watertown. Whether you’re a teacher, a contractor, an artist, a developer, an accountant, an IT guru, an engineer, a small business person, you have skills sets and ideas that can broaden and benefit this discussion. What we decide in the months ahead will be a legacy for Watertown for years to come.

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