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SC Meeting: September 15, 2020

At the 9/15 School Committee meeting, there was an update on the School Master Plan as well as the start of the school year. Three Memorandums of Agreement (MOAs) with NPS staff were voted on. 

For the first time since March, the School Committee convened fully in-person at the Broadmeadow school. The meeting began with an executive session that was closed to the public. At 6:30, the public portion began with a video of Needham music teachers performing the Star Spangled Banner, which had been prepared for students. No members of the public wished to comment. 

School Master Plan Review

Jason Boone and Michelle Rogers of Dore & Whittier Architecture presented options for addressing both the physical and space needs for Needham schools moving forward. Previously, a range of options were explored, which were presented at the May 5 School Committee Meeting

Mitchell and Pollard have been identified as the schools with physical issues that need to be remedied:  

Based on enrollment projections and capacity assessments, Mitchell, Pollard, and High Rock have all been identified as having space needs.

Of the initial seven scenarios that were explored, three options are now being proposed for consideration: 

Option 1. Status Quo

This scenario would maintain the current NPS structure of five elementary schools, 6th grade at High Rock, and 7th and 8th grades at Pollard. It would require additions at High Rock and Pollard, construction of a new 5-section Mitchell school, and the construction of temporary swing space at Defazio.

  • Total Cost: $310.3 million

  • Total Duration: 139 months

Option 2. Discontinue High Rock

In this scenario, Pollard would become a grade 6-8 school through an addition, and a new 5-section Mitchell would be built. HIgh Rock would remain vacant until another use for the space was identified.

  • Total Cost: $287.1 million

  • Total Duration: 70 months

Option 3. High Rock as Elementary School

This scenario would also turn Pollard into a grade 6-8 school, but the new Mitchell would be built as a smaller 3-section school, and with minimal renovations High Rock would also be converted to a sixth 3-section elementary school. This scenario would result in six more total elementary classrooms than option 2 (132 vs. 126).  

  • Total Cost: $251.9 million

  • Total Duration: 70 months

As the three options were discussed, some additional information was provided:

  • Renovating High Rock instead of building a new Mitchell could possibly accommodate all of the town’s elementary students, but would result in larger class sizes, the loss of instruction space for some specials like art and music, and would require massive redistricting. It is also possible that, if the enrollment projections are off, there would not be enough space in the future. 

  • Converting High Rock to an elementary school requires primarily just scaling down bathroom fixtures.

  • The addition to High Rock in option 1 would be difficult and costly given the site of the school.

  • There is interest in maintaining a separate 6th grade program within the new 6-8 Pollard campus. How that is accomplished will require more study. Both middle school principals favor a combined 6-8 campus at Pollard while also maintaining autonomy for the 6th grade.

  • The town would seek funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which would typically provide 30-40% of the total cost. The MSBA will only fund one project in town at a time, and possibly only one even if the projects are not concurrent, especially since loss of revenue during the pandemic may affect available funds. The fact that Needham has thoroughly explored multiple options should be appreciated by the MSBA when considering funding, since they want districts to be as economical in their projects as possible. For that reason, option 3, which makes use of an existing school and requires a smaller project for Mitchell, might be preferred by the MSBA.

Chair Longo Carter acknowledged that this is another large school building project that will require the support of the entire town. But when completed, the space and physical needs for Needham school children should be satisfied for the next 50+ years. 

There will be a public hearing on October 6, and the public is encouraged to learn more about all three options and participate in the decision making process. 

Reopening of School Update

Dr. Gutekanst provided an update on the reopening of schools, with a focus on building maintenance:

  • Building maintenance is what caused the delay of in-person learning until September 29.

  • NPS has decided to exceed the EPA standard of 2.8 Air Changes per Hour (ACH), with a goal 4-6 ACH in every classroom.  

  • Air flow studies showed that use of just a mechanical ventilator only generated 1.7-2.2 ACH. Opening windows and doors dramatically increased air flow to 12.5-18.6 ACH. Older schools will need to use windows and doors as part of air flow.

  • The Town is currently working on required maintenance, including installation of window fans, HEPA filters, and window screens.

  • Testing, Adjusting and Balance (TAB) results for every classroom should be available and posted next week for the public to see.

  • Any classrooms or spaces that do not meet standards will not be used until remediated.

Detailed information about building maintenance and HVAC are available on the district website.

School started successfully on Monday:

  • Blue/Gold Cohort students started remotely and are expected to move to hybrid on 9/29

  • Red Cohort (Remote Academy) has 519 students prek - 8,  125 students 9 - 12, and 44 dedicated teachers/staff/TAs

  • Some Green Cohort students began attending in person — primarily those in specialized special education programs. 

Next Steps

  • Town Maintenance finishes work & remediation

  • Approve NEA agreements (action item below)

  • Address budget shortfall which is currently $750K - 1M. The school budget has already been reduced by 30%, and may need to be reduced further.

  • Town and schools are working together on the budget request

  • Fall athletics. Competition will be against limited towns. Dr. Gutekanst has requested that all team captains, coaches, and school leaders will sign an agreement to follow all safety guidelines on and off the field for the duration of the season. Fall sports will be golf, girls swimming and diving, field hockey, soccer, and cross country. Football, cheer, and girls volleyball are delayed.

During questions and discussion, additional points made included:

  • Dr. Gutekanst believes that buildings will be ready to open on the 29th, although individual classrooms may still need work. A mechanical failure at a building level would close only that building, not the whole district.

  • Students have been strongly reminded to not engage in unsafe social gatherings such as those that have taken place in nearby towns. But if there were an outbreak related to a NHS party, the district would work to ensure that it would not impact the entire school or district, and would attempt to contain any outbreak with a more targeted response. 

October Special Town Meeting Preparation 

The warrant for the 10/4 STM will be limited. There is a funding article for school, and meetings with the town manager are taking place to work out funding in the context of the overall town budget. 

  • $1.2 M has been saved by reducing supplies and services including PD, textbooks, subscriptions, memberships. 

  • Circuit breaker funds from the state were budgeted at 75%, but may go down to 50% — $500K — or lower. 

  • The town has already spent a lot on maintenance, which is appreciated.

  • Remote learning academy is an unexpected expense — it is essentially a ninth school, and can not be fully staffed by just shifting resources from the other schools.

Action items

FY 21-22 Budget guidelines were approved 7-0-0 with small edits suggested at the last meeting, including adding reference to ongoing impact of Covid 19, eliminating Portrait of a Needham Graduate action steps, and prioritizing work around equity and anti-racism. Approved 7-0-0 

Three Memorandums of Agreement (MOAs) were presented and recommended for approval by Dr. Gutekanst:

  1. Nutrition Services Workers These workers have agreed to take on additional duties — light cleaning and disinfection — when not needed to prepare meals. Their dedication to feeding students and willingness to assist in cleaning is greatly appreciated. Approved 7-0-0

  2. Health, Safety & Operations Approved 7-0-0

  3. Covid 19 Teaching & Learning The Superintendent and all SC Committee members agreed that the amount of live teacher contact and synchronous learning for elementary students during remote weeks is not as robust as desired. There was discussion and disagreement about whether the MOA needs to be renegotiated to reflect this. The majority of School Committee members voted in favor of the MOA as written, citing the good faith efforts of the NEA and confidence that improvements will be made once possible, regardless of the written agreement. Dr. Gutekanst stated the MOA represents the minimum, and asserted that teachers and staff all desire to provide more as soon as they are able. SC members Aaron Pressman and Matt Spengler, while expressing appreciation for the collaboration with NEA leaders, voted against the MOA. Approved 5-2-0

The next School Committee meeting will take place on October 6, and will include a Public Hearing on the School Master Plan.


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