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SC Meeting: October 6, 2020

At the October 6th School Committee meeting there was a Public Hearing on the School Master Plan, and the scheduled vote was postponed until the October 20th meeting. The meeting was broadcast live on the Needham Channel for community members to view, and was available on Zoom for the Public Hearing and Public Comments portion of the meeting.

Public Hearing on School Master Plan

Members of the Dore + Whittier Architects team presented information on the School Master Plan, which can be found in the meeting packet (pages 4–32).

  • The planning process was started in December 2019, and looked at the limitations of the current school buildings, educational needs, and projected enrollment

  • High Rock, Mitchell, and Pollard were determined to have the highest needs for functional and educational use of space; Mitchell and Pollard also have physical building needs

  • It would cost $70M to “fix” Mitchell and Pollard but still would not address overcrowding issues

Dore + Whittier explored seven possible scenarios to solve the problems (presented at the 5/5 SC meeting), which were narrowed down to three final scenarios (presented at the 9/15 SC meeting):

  1. Scenario 1. Status Quo (7-8 at Pollard, 5-section Mitchell)

  2. Scenario 2. Discontinue High Rock (6-8 at Pollard, 5-section Mitchell)

  3. Scenario 3. High Rock as Elementary School (6-8 at Pollard, 3-section Mitchell)

[Please note: it is unclear if all three scenarios are still under consideration by the School Committee. Dore + Whittier referenced all three scenarios in their presentation, but both the presentation and meeting packet contained cost estimates for only Scenarios 1 and 3.]

Estimated timing and cost were presented for four plans. Factors that affect project cost are:

  • Anticipated MSBA funding —  The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) historically will only provide funding for one project in a town at a time, requiring that one school project be finished before another one can be submitted for funding. To increase the possibility that both projects receive MSBA funding, projects would be scheduled to not overlap.

  • Annual cost increases — Project costs are estimated to increase 4.5% per year, so finishing a project sooner decreases the overall cost.

  • Annual Capital Improvement costs (CIP) — There is a cost to maintaining the existing Pollard and Mitchell buildings until they are renovated or replaced, which means that accelerating the schedule saves annual CIP expenditures. 

For each plan, a “Standard” and “Accelerated” timeline and cost were estimated.  “Accelerated” assumes the MSBA would provide funding for only one project, while “Standard” assumes MSBA funding for both. 

It is important to note that the estimated costs presented below do NOT include any MSBA funding, but the net costs with assumed MSBA funding are included in the meeting packet (pages 72–74). Once MSBA funding is included, the “Standard” options have lower net costs than the “Accelerated” ones.

Plan A: Status Quo (previously referred to as Scenario 1)

  • This plan would renovate Pollard, keep High Rock as a 6th grade school, and build a new 5-section Mitchell

  • A1 Standard: $317.8M, completed in September 2032, MSBA funds both  

  • A2 Accelerated: $304.5M, completed in September 2029, MSBA funds Mitchell

Plans B, C, and D are all variations on what was previously referred to as Scenario 3: renovating and enlarging Pollard to accommodate grades 6-8, building a 3-section Mitchell, and converting High Rock to a sixth 3-section elementary school. 

Plan B: Pollard as 1st MSBA / Mitchell as 2nd MSBA

  • B1 Standard: $281.4M, completed in September 2033, MSBA funds both 

  • B2 Accelerated: $270.7M, completed in September 2029, MSBA funds Pollard

Plan C: Pollard as 1st MSBA accelerated with CMR / Mitchell as 2nd MSBA

  • Same scenario as Plan B but timeline moved up by a year

  • C1 Standard: $274.7M, completed September 2033, MSBA funds both 

  • C2 Accelerated: $261.3M, completed September 2028, MSBA funds Pollard

Plan D: Pollard as 1st Accelerated (non-MSBA)/ Mitchell as MSBA Project

  • Pollard renovation and new Mitchell School projects undertaken at the same time

  • Standard: N/A

  • D1: Accelerated: $252M, completed in September 2027, MSBA funds Mitchell

After the Dore + Whittier presentation, School Committee Chair Andrea Longo Carter announced that the committee decided NOT to vote on a plan at this meeting, but that a vote will occur at the next school committee meeting on October 20. The meeting was then opened up to public comments and questions. Several notable comments included:

  • Were any of these plans made considering the COVID pandemic and the need for social distancing? The Dore + Whittier architects noted that social distancing was not taken into account, but that any new or updated building would include high-efficiency ventilation systems.

  • Several people commented on the value of High Rock as a 6th grade only school and the uniqueness it holds in our community, and questioned how combining 6th grade into Pollard might diminish that. High Rock Principal Jessica Downey spoke about how she feels it would benefit students to combine with the rest of the middle schoolers, highlighting fewer transitions as well as longer relationships with teachers and other meaningful adults at the school. Both middle school principals worked extensively with Dore + Whittier on the Master Plan, and if 6th grade was incorporated into Pollard it would likely have its own space and act as a sort of “school within a school.”

  • There were concerns about whether expanding Pollard would lead to loss of green space and trees around the school.

  • One commenter requested that the need for adequate and well-maintained theater space be addressed as part of any facilities and building plan moving forward, especially at the high school. The superintendent noted that there is a planned auditorium needs assessment in the capital budget request for 2022, though this would not result in any new theater space being constructed. In addition, some maintenance has already been done to address issues in the NHS theater.

  • Greg Bayse, Mitchell Principal stated that from a space and neighborhood perspective, having a 3 section Mitchell and a 3 section High Rock Elementary makes the most sense; trying to build a 5 section Mitchell on the current lot would cause significant traffic and likely would not allow for enough outdoor space for the school.

  • Redistricting will be required, but there is no information about what that might look like at this time.

Opening of School Update

Dr. Gutekanst provided a brief update regarding the opening of schools this year. (Pages 46–66 in the meeting packet.)

Health and Safety

  • A Joint Committee on Health and Safety was established to advise and guide decisions around school health and safety, including agreed upon metrics for closing and reopening schools: 

    • State Department of Public Health and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education health measures

    • Positivity rates (14 day average) below 5%, using town, county, and relative rate of change

    • Adherence to NPS expectations for health and safety measures (mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, building ventilation)

    • Using a holistic approach, incorporating data and trends

    • Green/yellow/red zones as guidelines to determine hybrid vs. remote (Needham is currently yellow)

  • Emphasized the need for 3W’s: Wash hands, Wear a mask, and Watch your distance

  • If students are feeling unwell please contact nurse to discuss symptoms and need for testing/quarantine

Cohort Demographics 

  • The breakdown of cohorts across schools is relatively consistent, but some racial disparities for both Red and Green cohort students were noted, as well as for METCO students and students of lower socio-economic status. These disparities will be studied further.

Teaching & Learning

  • Portrait of a Needham Graduate has taken a bit of a detour given COVID, but they will continue to try to move forward.

  • The district website has a link to K-5 curriculum updates, which now include racial literacy to address equity and try to be actively anti-racist.

School Committee Comments:

  • Student Representative Aidan Michelow discussed that hybrid learning is generally going well.  There are some concerns among students that classes that are being taught simultaneously to in-person and remote learners are not well received by the remote learners (hard to hear questions or comments from students in the class). It has also been hard to maintain social distancing upon entering the school and going into the cafeteria.

  • Community and committee concerns regarding remote learning days for the elementary hybrid cohorts. Dr. Gutekanst asked for patience as the teachers and administrators are trying to make improvements.

Preliminary Capital Improvement Plan for FY 2022-2026

Assistant Superintendent for Finance Anne Gulati presented the Capital Improvement plan, which can be found on pages 68–121 of the meeting packet.

  • Technology and Equipment requests (computers, printers, furniture, transportation): $3.5M

  • Facilities requests: $289.5M-$208.4M depending on which path the School Committee chooses for the Master Plan

    • Emery Grover renovation $27.8M, up to 50% may be eligible for Commonwealth Preservation Act funding

    • $60K for needs assessment for updating theater sound and lighting at Pollard, Newman, and NHS auditoriums

  • Discussion on options for Master Plan

    • MSBA tends to favor projects for older schools with more need over schools with overcrowding

    • School Committee needs to think carefully about which project to submit first to MSBA because that may affect their likelihood of being approved

    • The longer the projects take, the more capital improvement will be required on existing buildings

Additional Comments: 

  • A Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) Overview meeting will take place on 10/7/20 over Zoom. The link can be found on the District website. 

  • Committee Member Connie Barr acknowledged the sudden passing of David Summergrad, former SC member and member of the Diversity Initiative in Needham. 

  • Committee Chair Andrea Longo Carter asked the committee to think about the Commonwealth requirement that students take the MCAS this spring, particularly with regards to it being a graduation requirement for seniors, and whether or not the committee would support this.

The next School Committee meeting will take place on Tuesday, October 20.


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