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Letter to School Department

posted Mar 21, 2016, 6:10 PM by Lauren Ledger   [ updated Oct 23, 2016, 11:43 PM by Greg Dennis ]

We, the School Enrollment Parent Group, urge the Arlington Public School Department to conduct a comprehensive financial analysis of potential solutions to the middle school overcrowding immediately. The Ottoson Middle School was built to educate 1,050 students. The school population is currently 1,127 and is projected to be 1,308 in less than five years. Because of this short time frame, we urge the School Department to initiate that process now.

Arlington values high quality education and neighborhood schools. Our town government should be commended for taking extreme care in managing finances and spending wisely.Overrides in our town typically stretch longer than anticipated and the town has a healthy override stabilization fund. Our challenge is to align our value of conservative spending with our commitment to providing high quality education to the town’s students.

At this time, the  options that seem to be most favored for  solving the overcapacity problem at the middle school are:

  1. Reclaiming the APS-owned Gibbs School Expanding the OMS campus with a permanent addition
  2. Buying modular classrooms for use at the Ottoson Middle School. They would be placed on a staggered basis over the next five years. At the end of the five year period, there would be a total of twenty modular classrooms.

Any solution to this enrollment crisis will cost money and our residents will expect fiscal responsibility in the decision-making process. On behalf of residents, the Finance Committee will require well-documented estimates of the costs associated with any options. Both parents and residents will demand a solution that serves our students, teachers, administrators and neighborhoods well.

In 2010, at the Annual Town Meeting, the town voted to sell some surplus school properties to pay for the scheduled renovations at Thompson Elementary school. This included voting to sell the Crosby School. At this time it was decided to retain the Gibbs building to use in the event of school enrollment growth. We have reached that point now, and it is our responsibility to follow through with these long-term plans.

The decision of whether to reclaim Gibbs is not a referendum on the value of the Arlington Center for the Arts or on any of the other tenants. It is a strategic decision in response to capacity issues at Ottoson Middle School. A feasibility study needs to be done as soon as possible by the town and the school department to determine actual costs and timelines for renovating the Gibbs School. The school would need renovations to bring it into line with the Ottoson Middle School and with state regulations for a public middle school. Once the study is completed, the town can  decide  which population (6-8th grade from East Arlington, 6th grade, or 8th grade) will be housed there. It is not fair to any of the tenants of the building for the town to draw out the decision any longer.

At this point it is unclear how much these Middle School options will cost the town and taxpayers. The School Committee has been working with the assumption that renovating the Gibbs School would cost $25-30 million.  In the February 4th edition of the Arlington Advocate, Jean Flanagan. from the ACA,  is quoted as saying, “The Gibbs School would need something in the range of 24 million dollars to bring it up-to-date.”  However,  the closest real estimate we have for the cost of renovating the school was in the preliminary report, completed by HMFH Architects last summer. After their quick walk-through of the Gibbs School, this architecture firm suggested that a renovation to the Gibbs School could cost between $14-20 million.

It’s our opinion that many of these numbers seem high for a renovation. The complete teardown and rebuild of the state-of-the-art Thompson Elementary School cost $20 million, with some money left over. It is expected to  cost $10 million to completely renovate the 66,000-square-foot Stratton Elementary School, bringing it to parity with the Thompson School.  The Gibbs School, at 60,000 square feet, is smaller than the Stratton School. Although it would need significant upgrades to bring it up-to-date, it must only reach parity with the Ottoson Middle School. It does not need to be a brand new school. It’s hard to believe that this would cost more than the Stratton renovation of $10 million dollars.

The private Lesley Ellis School has occupied the Gibbs School for many years. Tuition for a middle school student is $28,000 per year. If the quality of the building is sufficient to support this tuition, it seems likely that it would be more than adequate to be used for our public school students during this time of our enrollment growth.

If a feasibility study is done to look at all of the options the town is considering to solve enrollment challenges at the middle school, the School Committee can make an educated decision about the best path to choose. If the study shows that the Gibbs School is an economically viable option, it should also be looked at as a long-term investment to the town. In its current state, with four tenants leasing the space for lower than market value, the building generates approximately $30,000 each year for the town. If, in twenty years, our school enrollment declines, the town would have the option of moving all students into one Middle School and renting the Gibbs building out again. The rental income the town would generate from a more recently renovated school would far exceed $30,000 a year and would be a solid long-term investment. If, after the feasibility study, it is decided that the Gibbs School is not the best solution to our enrollment challenges, than it should be assessed to sell in order for the profits to be used during this time of need.

We urge the School Department and town to move forward with funding and carrying out a feasibility study to analyze all of the options that are under consideration to alleviate crowding at Ottoson Middle School. The longer we delay making a decision, the more it will cost the taxpayers in Band-Aid solutions like modular classrooms. The costs of long-term solutions also rise as we wait. Students are already paying for our lack of planning as more programs are cut each year in order to save space. The School Enrollment Parent Group feels that the town must act now in order to preserve educational quality and spend taxpayers’ money wisely.

Arlington School Enrollment Parent Group