The September 21 School Committee meeting included an update on the Opening of Schools and the Test and Stay Program, a Human Resources Update, and a discussion of future School Capital Requests, including Emery Grover and the School Master Plan for Mitchell/Pollard.
Update on Schools and Learning
Dr. Gutekanst gave an update on school opening, health, and safety. The district continues to be committed to the health and safety of students and staff, while also focusing on students’ learning and social/emotional needs.
Update on COVID testing: Options from the state include Test and Stay, Symptomatic testing, and COVID safety checks; Needham has chosen to only participate in Test and Stay at this time.
If a student is identified as a close contact and is involved in the Test and Stay protocol, students may participate in school as long as they test negative and are asymptomatic, but they are not allowed to participate in out of school activities such as playdates, youth sports, and religious education.
Families must opt in to participate. Information about Test and Stay and the consent form can be found on the District home page under the COVID Health and Safety section. Currently 52% of families have consented to participate, and the district encourages more families to consent.
95% of families are doing daily health checks and submitting the attestation form.
Dr. Gutekanst and Tim McDonald, Director of Public Health, will attend the Select Board meeting next week (9/28) to update them regarding Health and Safety in the schools.
Human Resources Updates
Dr. Montes McNeil presented an update on Human Resources and staffing within the district. The district is specifically trying to recruit diverse and qualified staff members.
The district has 421.4 Total Teacher FTEs, 98.8% of Teachers are Proficient, there is an 88.8% Teacher retention rate, and 29 teachers attained Professional Teacher status this year.
BIPOC staff has increased in the district; in 2017, 53.6 of the district wide FTEs were filled by people of color, in 2021 that number has increased to 73.1 FTEs. The district is trying to ensure that BIPOC staff is represented at all levels, including within the administration.
Within the last year the district has been able to hire significantly more BIPOC staff; some were teaching assistants that have moved up to become teachers, some are from other districts, and some are completely new to schools.
The district has implemented several recruitment strategies to target more diverse staff, including participating in virtual recruitment fairs and the MA Partnership for Diversity Education.
The district is still looking to fill Teaching Assistant positions and is actively seeking qualified applicants.
A successful virtual orientation was provided to all new staff this year.
The district is working in several areas to promote staff retention and employee satisfaction.
Stronger Together was started last year as a collaboration between the Needham Public Schools and the Town of Needham, to address BIPOC staff needs and create a safe space for discussion.
A mentor program is available for teachers and staff, and HR provides many other support systems.
The district has made many enhancements to the HR system through PowerSchool including updated records system, professional learning, and an online evaluation system.
Wellness in the Workplace is a priority of the HR department. They are working with the Director of Health Services regarding staff COVID concerns, coordinating health and dental benefits, implementing staff support systems, FMLA leaves, and wellness programs. In addition, a monthly newsletter is sent to all staff providing them with information regarding support systems.
FY23-27 School Capital Requests
Assistant Superintendent for Finance & Operation Anne Gulati provided a brief overview of the Capital Improvement Requests that will be presented to the Town Manager as part of the budget planning process. The district will provide both 1-year (FY23) and 5-year capital requests, which are divided into the broad categories of Technology & Equipment and Facilities.
For FY23, the budget request is $27.4M total; for cumulative FY23-27 the budget request is $289M total, which includes the Emery Grover renovation and the revised School Master Plan for Pollard and Mitchell.
Technology & Equipment
Technology request covers school hardware, changing desktops to laptops, adding classroom soundfield systems, and funding shifted to replace computers and specialized labs.
Vehicle replacement requests replace school vans and buses; this is a status quo request.
Copier replacement and furniture replacement costs are status quo requests.
Facilities: Emery Grover Renovation
$19.4M additional is requested for the renovation of the Emory Grover School Administration Building, which would provide additional office, meeting and storage space, extensive repairs and renovation to the existing building.
The scope of the project has been reduced by ⅓ to fit the building within the existing structure, maximizing shared office space and common work spaces. This reduces the overall project cost from an estimated $27.2M to $21M.
If Special Town Meeting does not support this project, there is no immediate alternative to address safety concerns in the building such as sprinklers, ventilation systems, and handicapped inaccessibility.
There is a placeholder request for $2.6M to fit out leased office space in the event that the project is not supported by Town Meeting, which would allow the school administration to leave the existing building.
The town is also looking to get updated information on what it would cost to convert space at Hillside for administration offices and to tear down and rebuild at Emery Grover.
Facilities: School Master Plan Projects
In 2019, the School Committee commissioned a School Master Plan which studied all school facilities and identified pressing needs at High Rock, Pollard, and Mitchell schools. In 2020 the School Committee voted on a proposed plan to meet those needs which would renovate and expand Pollard to house grades 6-8, turn High Rock into a 6th elementary school, and build a new three-section school at Mitchell. But the estimated cost of $252M for this scenario exceeds the Town's debt financing capacity, so over the summer the School Committee requested additional funds to study options that might fit within the town's financing constraints. The study is about to begin, and the report is expected by December 2021.
The proposed budget needs to be presented to the Town Manager prior to the completion of the new study, which is why the Administration is presenting the School Committee with the current projected costs based on the information available.
Once the study is completed, the request can be revised within the current budgeting schedule leading up to Town Meeting in May.
Dr. Gutekanst acknowledged that it is a very large request. For both Emery Grover and School Master Plan, they continue to look at options and alternatives for cost savings. The School Administration hopes to have more informed Capital Plans in December after the latest studies are completed.
Michael Greis commented that delaying projects leads to cost escalations, plus interest rates are very low right now. He also pointed out that renovating/reusing older buildings is more energy efficient than new construction.
Aaron Pressman expressed reservations about presenting this preliminary — and unrealistic — request to the other Town boards, even if the intention is to revise it prior to the final budget request. The School Committee will vote on the request at their next meeting.
The School Committee voted unanimously to approve the creation of the ACCEPT Education Collaborative Capital Reserve Fund with a balance limit of $1M, with the purpose of supporting costs associated with the acquisition, maintenance, and/or improvement of assets in the district.
The School Committee will meet next on October 5 at 6:30pm.