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SC Meeting: October 5, 2021

At the October 5 School Committee meeting there was a discussion of facilities planning and an update was provided by school health staff regarding testing and contact tracing.

School Committee Updates

  • The school holiday on Monday is now known as Indigenous Peoples Day, thanks to advocacy by students last year.

  • Connie Barr commended the district for its continued work to recruit and retain diverse staff.

  • Michael Greis shared that the PPBC has expressed support for the SC's recommended plan for Emery Grover.

Superintendent’s Comments

  • Dr. Gutekanst addressed the misbehavior of students (predominantly middle school) on school grounds, including egg throwing and broken bottles on Memorial Field. The behavior has been addressed by staff and other adults, but Dr. Gutekanst also asked parents to talk to their kids about behavior expectations outside of school.

  • Congratulations to three National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists: Samuel Billante, Benjamin Lee, and Drew Winkler

  • The Special Olympics recognized NHS as a 2021 Unified Champion school.

Facilities Update — School Master Plan

Jason Boone from Dore + Whittier Architecture provided an overview of the School Master Plan Extension Study, to be completed by the end of 2021. The School Committee had previously approved a plan that would renovate Pollard to accommodate grades 6-8, build a new 3-section Mitchell, and convert High Rock into a sixth 3-section elementary school. But the cost of the project over the next five years exceeds the Town’s debt plan limitations. The revised study will look at ways to decrease the short-term cost by reducing the scope and/or lengthening the time frame. There will be four key explorations of the study as requested by the Finance Committee:

  • A variation to the preferred plan, with a detached 6th grade building at Pollard site

  • Better understanding the impact of COVID on future enrollment

  • Variations to the proposed "Status Quo" Scenario, which keeps all students in current buildings through building projects at High Rock, Pollard, and Mitchell

  • Explore a different "Status Quo" scenario, which also keeps students where they are but may entail an addition at Eliot and a smaller addition at Pollard

At the Pollard site, creating a detached 6th-grade center would allow the full Pollard renovation to be phased over a longer period of time — upgrades to the existing building could be completed after the 6th grade center is finished, instead of concurrently as would be required if the 6th grade center is added to the existing building.

A key component of the study is to look at how the pandemic has impacted enrollment projections throughout the district. New data from the 2020 census will be used, but the demographer has expressed concerns about both the accuracy of that data and expected delays in the release of it. The federal data will be supplemented by data provided by the town.

Some schematics included in the packet led to questions about the design of the Pollard site, and community concerns about loss of green space. It was stressed that these are not final designs, merely sketches to see if it is possible to fit a 6th grade center on the site. As with other school building projects, there will be a lengthy design process, multiple options will be presented, and the public will have opportunities to provide input.

Facilities Update — Emery Grover

Dr. Gutekanst provided an update on the Emery Grover project. At the upcoming Special Town Meeting, there will be a warrant article seeking design funds for a historic renovation of Emery Grover.

Based on the 2020 Feasibility Study, the School Committee had voted to move forward with a renovation and addition to the Emery Grover building. In response to questions and concerns regarding the cost of the project, several alternative solutions have been explored:

  • Leasing space: The current cost of leasing would be $900,000 per year, plus an initial cost of about $2 million to for out the space. But there has been no response to requests for leasing info from local landlords.

  • Selling Emery-Grover for a profit: The market value of the building had been estimated at $3.6 million dollar in 2020, but now local realtors say it is closer to $2.1 million due to site constraints.

  • Building at Hillside: There are serious concerns about the unknown cost of remediation of soil contamination

The design has now been revised to stay within the footprint of the current building, reducing the estimated cost to about $21 million (which includes both the design cost and preparing swing space at Hillside). The smaller building will not include space for the IT department, which would remain in its current locations as Broadmeadow and Hillside schools. In addition to being the most cost-effective, this option would also be eligible for CPA funds, estimated around $6 million.

If funding is not approved on 10/25 then Dr. Guteknast will request $2 million for temporary relocation of school operations until a new space can be found. Continued use of Emery Grover in its current state is not possible.

Dr. Gutekanst and School Committee members voiced their strong support for the project, stating that, after many years of study, it remains the most affordable, efficient, and overall best solution for staff, families, and the community at large.

Update on Schools and Learning

Dr. Gutekanst provided an update on health and safety in Needham Schools:

  • On 9/16, 50 random rooms were tested for ventilation. Two were found to not meet standards but have now been fixed.

  • The COVID 19 Dashboard provides data on student and staff infections

  • There is over 90% compliance on daily health attestations

  • The Commissioner may lift the mask requirement November 1st. But Needham's Joint Committee on Health and Safety will review additional data before lifting the mask requirement in Needham Schools, and they will not pursue the option of lifting the mandate mid-October for schools with 80% vaccination rates.

  • Test and stay program is functioning and meeting the goal of keeping healthy students in schools.

  • Making this school year work is complicated for nurses and principals.

Susannah Hann, Interim Director of Health Services, Patricia Flueckiger, District Nurse, and Lisa Austin, Needham High School Nurse shared their perspective on health and safety measures this year. The more complicated contact tracing and quarantine rules have made the job even more challenging this year. Contact tracing at the High School in particular can be extremely time consuming, and more staff is being hired to help with both testing and contact tracing.

2021-2022 Superintendent’s Goals

Dr. Gutekanst provided a draft of his annual goals to the School Committee for their feedback. The vote to approve will take place at the next meeting.

Action Item

The School Committee voted unanimously to waive current school policy in order to allow student sponsorships in the Hometown Weekly Newspaper. This would allow fine and performing arts, as well as other student activities such as robotics teams, to be highlighted in the Hometown Weekly as athletics already are.

School Committee Comments

  • The community is encouraged to visit resources provided by the Substance Prevention Alliance of Needham (SPAN).

  • The Student Advisory Committee will present at the next School Committee meeting.

  • Community members are encouraged to send questions and comments to the school committee:

  • There is a School Committee Open House on Saturday, October 16, 9-10:30am outdoors at the High School

The next School Committee meeting is October 19 at 6:30pm.


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