Friday, November 16, 2001
Further study essential before school expansion project can be planned
Ed. note: With the Special Town Meeting approaching on November 27, The Mosquito asked former school committee reporter Marjorie Johnson to help readers understand the issues surrounding the request in article 6 for more money to explore all school expansion alternatives. She spoke with various members of town boards for their perspectives on the topic.
At the Annual Town Meeting in May of 2000, $15,000 was appropriated for a feasibility study for a new school. The firm of HKT Architects completed the feasibility study in June 2001. The plan they recommended would build a new school on the Banta-Davis Land that would house 330 students in grades pre-K to 2. The study looked briefly at two alternative sites: the hillside between the current campus and the Spalding fields, and the Spalding fields themselves. Because of the slope and soil conditions on the hillside and soil conditions on the Spalding fields, HKT thought the construction costs would be too high at these sites, so actual construction costs were not calculated. (See box)
The school building committee (SBC) based the need for a new building to house an additional 300 students on their projections of continuing rapid enrollment growth in Carlisle over the next 10 to 15 years. They also expected the Banta-Davis site to be easier to build on and easier to expand on in the future, if necessary. Not everyone in town agrees with their assessment of the rate of growth, or with the choice of Banta-Davis as the site, however. In recent meetings with the board of selectmen, the finance committee (FinCom) and the long-term capital requirements committee (LTCRC), many questions were raised that the original study did not answer.
At the Special Town Meeting on November 27, the SBC will be asking for $20,000 to conduct further study of the options and to try to answer some of the many questions that have been raised, SBC chair Paul Morrison said. All of the people contacted supported the idea of getting more information before trying to come up with a final proposal for school expansion. They also all agreed that the school population would continue to grow, although the rate of growth remains a question. After a meeting with state School Building Assistance (SBA) program officials on November 7, it was clear that all options are on the table for discussion. (See related article on page 1.)
The school building committee speaks
Morrison answered questions about why the school building committee and the school committee believe that a new school is necessary to accommodate future enrollment growth. Morrison's projection of enrollment assumes that the current rate of new home construction (about 25 per year since the mid 1990s) will remain the same for many years to come. Although he does expect the recent recession to create a short, sharp drop in new construction, he expects it will be over soon and growth will be back because "Carlisle is very attractive." He described Carlisle as a "family household magnet," drawing families with children because of the excellent schools, nice surroundings, plenty of land available for building on, and land prices that are lower than those in other towns with excellent schools. Morrison feels that the statewide demographic models (which show the number of children in the 0-5 age group beginning to decline as the baby-boomers reach the end of their child-bearing years) do not apply to Carlisle because of its great attraction to families with children.
Another factor Morrison sees as possibly adding to the enrollment growth rate is what he describes as a "tipping point" where taxes become high enough that people without children move out of town at a faster rate than in the past, and are replaced by families with school-age children.
Based on projections that there could be 300 more students in about ten years, the HKT plan for a new school on Banta-Davis, with room for easy further expansion if necessary, seemed attractive to the school committee. Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson explained the thinking behind locating grades pre-K to 2 together in the new school and leaving grades 3 to 8 together on the old campus.
Fox-Melanson said that she would prefer to have a K-8 school as long as it was a reasonable size. There will be too many children to comfortably accommodate them all on the current campus, she said. The next-best solution is to move grades pre-K to 2 to a new building that is designed specifically for the needs of the early childhood years. The educational focus for this age group is acquisition of literacy, the K-2 teachers already work closely together and the children in these grades have much in common, she said. There is a natural break in the focus between grades 2 and 3, she said, and that is why she would leave the third grade with the older children.
Fox-Melanson said that some of the advantages of the K-8 campus would remain on the 3-8 campus. There would still be opportunities for older students to work with younger children, for example. She would not want to move the middle school off by itself. Since the middle school facilities, such as science laboratories, already exist on the old campus, it is also less expensive to build a new building for the younger children than for the older ones.
As to the size of a new building, if the SBC projections are correct, the building proposed by HKT in their feasibility study would be too small. They proposed only five classrooms for each grade, but there have already been grades with five sections in the old school. To provide the space needed for the future, six or more classrooms for each grade would be needed, she said. She feels that six sections for each grade is manageable, but if the school population ever increased to the point where eight sections were needed, that would be the splitting point where two separate K-8 schools with four sections for each grade would be preferable.
Fox-Melanson also commented on operating costs for the various options from her point of view: Whether a new school goes on Banta-Davis, the hillside or the current campus, the administrative costs would be about the same. She would move the current assistant principal to the new school. No matter where the new space is, a new custodian would be needed. A nurse would be needed for a new building, even on the hillside, and would be needed anyway with increased enrollment.
The selectmen have their say
Selectman Vivian Chaput has heard from people who feel strongly that the school should be kept on one campus, she said, because the school is the center of the community. She would like to look more closely at the hillside site for classrooms and additional parking and explore reconstructing the Spalding Building with more classrooms and community space (like a cafetorium) that could be used for community events the way the Sleeper Room is used. She also suggested looking at the Carlisle Castle area as a potential building site.
The selectmen are looking at the needs of the whole town, Chaput said. "We need to allow for some additional school construction, but we want to maintain a sense of community on the school campus," she said. She supports studying other alternatives and options that were not looked at before. She does not see the need for as much new space as the SBC has suggested, however. "So much depends on the economy," she added. "We want to do [the school expansion] in the most reasonable and rational way."
Selectman John Ballantine has been following school enrollment trends. He expects that the enrollment at the Carlisle School, now at 847, will exceed 900, the designed capacity of the current campus, in the next three years or so. The exact timing will depend on the economy and the real estate market, he said. Based on build-out predictions of about 600 additional houses added over the next 30 years, he expects the school population to peak in the 1100- to 1200-student range, and then drop back to somewhere above 1000. (Build-out is the eventual number of homes in Carlisle after all available land has been developed.)
Ballantine has also looked at the number of older homes that have been selling the "turnover" homes in Carlisle. In the past two years the number of turnover homes has been up 10 to 15 percent over the long-term average. Whether this continues or falls back to the more typical level will also impact the rate of enrollment growth, he said.
Ballantine expressed concern that the need for multiple capital expenses in Carlisle over the next five to ten years could add $10 to $20 million to the town's debt load. Looking at the tax impact, Ballantine asked whether there are other concepts besides a new school on Banta-Davis that would cost less. He hoped that a new study will look beyond Banta-Davis to find an option that would allow phased construction as space was needed to reduce simultaneous expense.
Tony Allison, chair of the FinCom, wants to see the relative operating costs calculated for the various sites in addition to the building costs. The operating costs are ongoing and can have a larger impact on the town budget in the long run than the construction costs do, he said. He feels that operating a second campus on Banta-Davis could be more costly than adding on to the current campus or the hillside. He said that the FinCom would support an amount in the $20,000 range to study the options further.
Long-term caps concerns
Long-term capital requirements committee member Deb Belanger said that she agrees that enrollment will increase. She would like to come up with options at the existing school campus to accommodate 100, 200, and 300 more students and work through the different scenarios for each case. She would also like to build in phases as needed. If after a full examination of the options, including the relative building and operating costs, it turns out that Banta-Davis makes the most sense, that would be okay, she said, but the questions need to be answered first.
LTCRC chair Lenny Johnson echoed Ballantine's concern about the possible debt load from projects now under discussion, including Carlisle School expansion, a wastewater treatment facility for the school, Concord-Carlisle High School expansion and renovation, and major repairs and maintenance that will soon be needed on the existing school buildings. Johnson said that it is vital that the options for school expansion, including size, scope and location, be fully examined. He also would like to find a way to phase in the expansion project.
Johnson also said he expects enrollment growth to slow considerably over the next decade, as growth due to new construction will be offset by the aging of the current population. There will be many more families in Carlisle with college-age children than there are today, he said.
After listening to advice from all of these people and more, SBC chair Morrison came up with a list of items he would like to see studied in the next round. They include: how to improve access to Banta-Davis, construction and operating costs for a hillside facility, any blasting costs for Banta-Davis, building a large gym and cafeteria for the future and for community use, operating costs for all options, expanding incrementally instead of all at once, combining building on the hillside with expanding the present gym and cafeteria, parking and play space expansion on the current site.
Realities in real estate
Because the real estate market has a direct effect on school enrollment growth and several people mentioned real estate trends in their discussions, two Carlisle real estate brokers were contacted for their outlook on the situation.
Jack Bromley reported that real estate sales have slowed considerably, especially in the over-a-million-dollar price range. The market for the most expensive houses actually started slowing at the end of 2000, he said. Out of 36 houses now on the market in Carlisle, there are 21 in the million-dollar-plus price range, many of which have been on the market for six to nine months. The market for homes priced under $800,000 is still strong, he said, as long as the houses are in good condition. While there have been some price reductions on the high-end homes, they have not been enough to spur sales. On the other hand, very low interest rates are helping the market some, he added.
Bromley attributes the slow-down in the real estate market here to weakness in the high tech economy. Large companies such as Cisco and Sun that had planned major expansions in the area have slowed that expansion, and, "People are pulling back," he commented.
Paula Trebino agreed that sales have fallen for expensive, newly constructed homes. While many houses remain unsold now, she remembers times last year when there were as few as nine houses on the market in Carlisle at a given time.
Asked about the increase in turnover of existing houses, Trebino said that the small differences could be statistical fluctuations because the total numbers are so small. She has seen no evidence of older people leaving town because of high taxes in any greater numbers than usual. There have always been many reasons older people move out of town, she said, including to save on taxes or to take the equity from the home to live on while moving to a smaller home. Most people who live here like it here and want to stay as long as they can, she said. While many people move to Carlisle because of the schools, they also come for the rurality and small-town feel, and those things remain even after the children are grown.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito