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SC Meeting: August 26, 2021

The August 26 School Committee meeting included discussion of construction on the school administration building (Emery Grover). the School Master Plan, and an update on the opening of schools.

Public Comments

There were no public comments, but School Committee Chair Connie Barr stated that several parents (and a grandparent) have expressed concerns in emails regarding unmasked lunches for younger (unvaccinated) students. Proactive measures to address these issues were outlined later in the meeting.

Superintendent's Comments

  • The superintendent shared comments on the preparations for the new school year. The Town, which retains responsibility for the physical school buildings, has performed maintenance and upgrades over the summer, including the refurbishment of gyms at Pollard and creating handicapped-accessible bathrooms at Pollard and Mitchell.

  • Bus ridership is down, and there is no wait list for bus. This will have a financial impact on the budget,

  • Enrollment is down slightly; about 220 fewer kids than 2019. Official counts will be taken as of October 1st. New enrollment projections will be developed with new census data.

Consent Agenda

The consent agenda included approval of an auction of iPad devices and AV components. The iPads are five years old or more, and can’t be used in a school environment because they do not run updated operating systems. Under law, the district is required to auction surplus items. Under policy, the district asks the school committee for approval to place them up for auction. Two years worth of iPads are being disposed of, and they need significant refurbishment. No charity has been identified as having interest, which is the other option for disposal.

Draft Budget Guidelines

Budget guidelines for the development of the FY23 budget were approved, including a proposed outline of dates in order to be ready for Town Meeting vote. The guidelines also reflect School Committee priorities: address learning gaps, equity, anti-racist practices. Budget requests need to be tied to the priorities.

Facilities Update: School Master Plan

The Master Plan was funded in 2019, presented to the community and School Committee in Spring, 2020. At the October 6, 2020 meeting, the School Committee voted for Option D: Tackle Pollard first as a grades 6-8 school and then proceed with Mitchell via MSBA partnership. By doing Pollard first, sixth graders can move over to Pollard — while keeping a school within a school concept — and then Mitchell kids could go to High Rock while Mitchell is rebuilt. If Mitchell were rebuilt first, the district would need to find interim space, which would add expense.

Town Boards have discussed the proposal over the summer, and a Facilities Work Group was convened by the Select Board to discuss the many expensive town and school projects that are on the horizon. Members include representatives from the School Committee, the Finance Committee, Community Preservation Committee, Permanent Public Building Committee, and the Select Board. So they have asked Dorn Whittier, the consultant, to extend the study, and take into account some of the financing plans, and propose extensions, enhancements, and timeline changes. Would likely present in the spring, but will be an iterative process. There will be Community engagement, focus groups, and other opportunities for the community to share their input regarding the plans.

The committee also had a discussion about the possibility that Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) assistance would not be available for the school building projects. MSBA often reimburses up to 30% of a project, but the town should not depend on receiving this funding fro Pollard or Mitchell — there are a large number of towns competing for the funds, and Needham was a recent recipient for the Sunita Williams School project.

Facilities Update: School Administration and Operations Building Plan

The superintendent shared historical details regarding renovation of the Emery Grover building. At the May 5, 2020 meeting, the Emery Grover Feasibility Study was was presented. Based on the findings of the study, School Committee voted to move forward with a renovation and addition to Emery Grover. This option would allow for the use of about $6 million of Community Preservation Act funds for the project (with a total projected cost of approximately $28 million). The next step in the process was to request approximately $1.5 million in design funds from Town Meeting in fall of 2020, however the request was withdrawn at that time to allow for further discussion with the town.

A year later, the Superintendent is recommending a request for design funds to go to Town Meeting this fall. Dr. Gutekanst gave a presentation on the many uses of Emery Grover, and its dilapidated state, including its ongoing inaccessibility for people with physical challenge (as highlighted in his recent blog post). Significant studies over the years show need, but action to improve the building have been repeatedly deferred and delayed.

In response to conversations with the Facilities Working Group, they have engaged the designer to explore ways to reduced scope, including pulling IT out of the building and leaving the department at Hillside, re-envisioning spaces as shared, and continuing to explore lessons learned from the pandemic to see if building usage can be streamlined. But the building is a hub of school operations, and the work of administrators is done collaboratively in-person, so a physical space IS needed, and there is not sufficient appropriate space to be found either in school buildings or other town buildings.

The FWG has also asked to get information on the costs to lease space instead. They know it would be expensive, but were encouraged to explore. (It is estimated that in approximately 20 years the cost of leasing space will exceed the cost of the renovation project, which is designed to last 50 or more years.)

Dr. Gutekanst expressed concern about some online posts that have been made which are not accurate. For example, some claim that some of our schools may be deteriorating and near point of collapse. While the district knows some buildings need to be updated and renovated, they ARE safe for students and staff.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gutekanst stated that the conditions at Emery Grover will require school administration staff to be moved out of the building within 12-18 months. If SC will agree to move forward and TMM can support, the administration would leave Emery Grover and go to Hillside temporarily. If the decision is made to abandon the plan for Emery Grover now in favor of leasing space, there is no turning back. This becomes a permanent decision.

School Committee Members asked questions and made statements of support regarding their opinions on the rebuilding of the Emery Grover administration building. Andrea Longo-Carter read an extensive statement of support of the project and addressed and rebutted concerns that have been expressed in public forums, including whether the administration functions need to continue to be in-person, whether the administration can work out of different space, and whether the proposed project costs are too high.

Petition to Approve Private School

By state law, as the Local Educational Authority (LEA), the school committee must approve any requests for the establishment of a local school. The Needham Montessori School on Highland Ave. is petitioning to expand to an early elementary school, grades 1-3. Curriculum has been reviewed and the superintendent will ask for a vote of support at the next meeting.

Opening of School update

The Joint Committee on Health and Safety continues to advise on health protocols. The committee includes staff, public health, school physician, SC Chair Dr. Connie Barr, health services director, partners from Harvard School of Public Health. They are also following guidelines from DESE, using a layered approach to minimize risk.

  • Masks are mandated for all students and staff preK-12 except when eating, drinking, during mask breaks, or outside. In October, will look at 7-12 vaccination rates to consider making the middle and high school mask optional. Mask breaks will be outside when possible.

  • Building maintenance is ongoing to keep high ventilation levels up.

  • There will be no visitors until at least Nov. 1 during school day.

  • Classroom will have seating charts.

  • Continued daily health attestation for students and staff.

  • During lunch distancing is not mandated but will be optimized as much as possible. Lunchrooms will have open windows, and seating charts for pre-K-8. In response to concerns about elementary cafeterias specifically, principals have clarified how they will optimize distancing, which will differ by school: Broadmeadow and Eliot will continue to use their performance Center, while Mitchell will have a tent again. Desks and orange buckets may be used again for seating at various schools.

  • The district will do test-and-stay, which will keep kids in school learning as much as possible. Contact tracing for close contacts will result in a rapid test; if it is negative it will allow that student to be able to stay. The district is not pursuing a surveillance testing program due to the data on false positives and considering the high rates of vaccination in our schools.

  • The district is also developing protocols for those in quarantine, especially if asymptomatic. There will be no remote learning option, as it is not authorized by the state, they we are working on how to support students who must quarantine.

Dr. Gutekanst reminded everyone that we are not eliminating the risk of getting COVID in schools. Instead we are reducing risks by being thoughtful, implementing layered approach to risk mitigation, and helping students manage themselves.

New adjustments to elementary schedules will be implemented this year. In general, there are larger blocks of time and standardized times for specials, along with consolidation of some instruction.

  • 90 minutes for literacy, 60 min for math.

  • Teaching of same content will happen at the same time across a grade, ensuring are kids are having the same experience.

  • A new block has been created to slow down, reteach, and assess.

  • STEAM curriculum will be integrated into science, art, music, and math, instead of a separate stand-alone class.

  • Chorus will be incorporated into music class for fourth and fifth graders.

In addition, class sizes have been reduced in some areas, and math and literacy specialists are preparing to provide support and interventions

Action items

  • Purchasing cards: Approved

  • Face coverings policy: Gives the superintendent the authority to change, should circumstances warrant. The policy will be revised so that SC will be notified of any changes. — Approved

  • Warrant article for Emery Grover design funds: Due to Select Board on 9/3. Unanimously approved.

The next meeting is 9/14 at 5pm, and then School Committee members will head to the Select Board meeting.


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