Friday, October 26, 2001
Questions, doubts, and strong support surface at mini-summit on school building plans
The Carlisle School Committee received a dose of reality from town officials Tuesday evening October 16 as it tried to explain current pressures of increased enrollment and limited school campus space and the urgency of its request for a new school. Representatives from the board of selectman, the long-term capital requirements committee, and the recreation commission participated in the wide-ranging discussion asking questions, offering suggestions and occasionally voicing their skepticism.
Chairman of the Carlisle School Committee (CSC) Suzanne Whitney Smith summarized the committee's position. "Clearly, the need for expansion is obvious. The number of students on campus continues to grow, with an additional 35 this year." (School enrollment as of October 1, 2001 is 857 students, up from 822 on October 1, 2000.)
"Educational services at the core facilities of the school are maxed out," said Whitney Smith. "Already shifts of children are eating in classrooms; the play plaza is congested; the scheduling for spaces such as the gym and auditorium are a challenge. We are reaching the school campus maximum capacity of 900 at a rapid rate. The last building project, the Link or Grant Building, just provided additional classrooms and did not add any space to the core of the school. Parking also presents a safety concern. With the need to provide relief to the core facilities and the boundaries of the present campus, the viable conclusion is to seek expansion of the present complex or build on another campus."
Whitney Smith went on to say that the alternatives are lands closest to the school, Spalding Field, the slope at the present school, and the Banta-Davis Land. The Spalding Field would mean that already scarce ball fields would be lost. In addition, building there presents a wetland issue. The slope area is not stable as it is composed of glacial till and has been declared not suitable for a waste water treatment plant. The Banta-Davis Land was bought with the idea that it would be the site for a future public building or school."
"HKT Architects Inc. who did the construction and design for the Grant building," said Whitney-Smith, "was asked to do a feasibility study and look at the three sites." (The funds of $15,000 for a feasibility study were voted by Spring 2000 Town Meeting.) "The feasibility study prepared by HKT declared that the least expensive option would be to build a pre-K through 2 school on the Banta-Davis site. A pre-K through Grade 2 school building is less expensive to build than a middle school. The design allows for the combination of room functions such as a cafetorium. Construction on the Banta-Davis Land would also solve the parking problem and has the potential to allow for future expansion."
Lenny Johnson of the long-term capital requirements committee felt that there were some areas in the expansion plan that needed more definition. The community needed a better understanding of space requirements for the present enrollment, for indoor common areas and parking areas. He would like to have student numbers quantified on the existing campus in context of the space needs and suggested that the capacity limit of 900 students on the present campus should be revisited.
Whitney-Smith answered, "It will take over three and a half years to construct a building. The numbers will be well over 900 by then." School committee member Crowther said that eight years ago the number 900 "seemed O.K." but as the school population grew closer to that number, it became "uncomfortable." Clearly frustrated, superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson said, " We want to maintain space to breathe, live and work. Three to four years from now we could still be deciding what the numbers are and on what spot should we do the building."
Johnson pointed out that student projections depend on the real estate market. CSC member Morrison answered, We are getting 30-40 new kids every year. It is hard to agree on what will happen in ten years. I don't feel the numbers are going to stop." Fox Melanson answered that she felt there was also a large turnover in the older housing stock which was causing a great increase in the number of school age children.
Johnson also expressed the need to understand the costs of the transition period, the changes in the function of spaces, and the price tag for modular classrooms, if required by the school. Deb Belanger, also of the long-term caps committee, said, "A time line is helpful for the community in capital planning."
Belanger concluded by advising the school committee, "The best possible argument to sell the proposal is the demographics and enrollment increases. It is important to get out [that information] before the Spring Town Meeting."
Recreation commission Member Maureen Tarca brought up the issues of the capital expenditures if the tennis courts and playgrounds have to go, as they would if the decision was made to build on the slope or Spalding Field. "There are incremental costs and replacement costs associated with decisions, in addition to development costs," she pointed out.
Tarca also wondered about a potential community component to construction on the Banta-Davis Land. Whitney Smith agreed, saying the school is using the space in the Corey building more and more so there is less time and space for community and recreation programs. School business manager Eileen Riley felt that new school building funding does allow for community use.
Fox-Melanson suggeted that the school explore private funding, especially as this would make the buildings even more accessible to the community. Morrison said, "The school is well supported by the community. The school needs to have the community support."
Whitney Smith said there is value to a sense of intimacy on a one-campus school. However, she felt, that feeling is being lost with the increase in numbers. She thought if the campus were split that feeling of intimacy could be regained. Each unit could function as an integrated space.
Again the feeling of frustration surfaced when the school committee was asked about level of of funding expected from the Department of Education (DOE). The administration's correspondence with the DOE has indicated that the state will not be specific about what they will approve or not approve for funding, beyond specifying some footage requirements per child and per classroom. The DOE has also indicated it would not look favorably on larger/tall buildings such as the additional stories to the Spalding Building or a building on the slope. The CSC pointed out that it would take a many-storied structure on the Spalding location to accommodate even an additional hundred children. Also during the construction period it might take 9 or 10 modulars just to accommodate the children. This would also not be a long term solution for the congestion in the common areas. The school committee members strongly advised that it would be useless to put money into a proposal that would be judged unfavorably by the DOE, and not serve Carlisle's long-term needs.
Belanger said, "It is important to satisfy the town's Yankee community that needs to know that the school committee has done all its investigation. It is important to know the audience." In reply CSC Member Morrison asked whether the town needed to spend money on something which is "dead on arrival?"
Selectmen Tim Hult said that he supports the school and its plan, but the explanations have to be given. He felt the selectmen as a whole would say yes to the plan but there needs to be a financial balance. "This year state money is problematic and the economy is not good at this point. There will be no bonuses as stocks are affected. Therefore we have to come together as a town for the proposal to have a chance."
Hult added that not all selectmen agree on the siting of the proposed construction at Banta-Davis. There is also the issue of an immediate need for a water treatment plant for the school which presently does not have a working septic system. He agreed that a lack of knowledge of what the state will or will not allow is a problem. "This is a significant financial issue which will have a profound impact on the finances of the town. There are operating costs, transition costs and construction costs. It is necessary to go through the numbers and publicize them to educate the townspeople," he summarized.
Although the school committee feels that they have gone over and over the deliberations about interim and new building planning, Morrison agreed that a lot of detailed questions needed to be answered on site options before Town Meeting. "The question is what do we need to know and how do we convey that information publicly?"
Tarca said the townspeople like to be presented with options. Hult said, "The questions brought out at this meeting are questions being voiced in the community. When times are unsteady townspeople think differently. Clearly the issue is a community issue and needs to be revisited in a more public way."
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito