BURLINGTON – A recurring item of conversation on the School Committee agenda in the coming months will revolve around addressing the elementary school building needs.

While the School Committee formally supported submitting the heating, ventilation, and air condition (HVAC) and science classrooms upgrade at Burlington High School (BHS) for this year’s statement of interest, the sense from the members is to explore other funding options if the project gets shot down again, as well as finding a way to address the elementary school enrollment issues facing the district.

The tentative plan, if the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) denies the BHS statement of interest project, is to have the initiative become part of the town’s bonding schedule so the coveted funding can occur for the much-needed project.

The major project facing the district right now and over the next 10 years pertains to addressing the existing elementary school building needs, which are a result of the constant increase in elementary enrollment numbers, especially at the kindergarten level. This initiative is the leading candidate to replace the HVAC and science classroom upgrades project as an annual submission to the MSBA as a statement of interest.

“Enrollment is a more heavily weighted factor than repairs and renovations,” professed School Supt. Dr. Eric Conti. “My suggestion is likely going to be to switch our priority from the [BHS HVAC and science classrooms] to a new elementary school, but that does not mean our high school needs go away.”

Dr. Conti figures the best way to approach both needs is to identify the BHS HVAC project as an accelerated project and the new elementary school as a core program renovation. Under the parameters of an accelerated project, the BHS HVAC project would be a piecemeal operation with the HVAC and science classroom work done on separate occasions.

Just having the HVAC portion of the project done (no science classrooms) would cost $15 million, while the whole project (HVAC, science classrooms, plumbing, ceilings, walls, sprinkler systems, among other aspects) would total $75 million, which would include a 15-35 percent reimbursement rate from the state, if fully supported. Without the MSBA’s support, the funding would come from the town’s 10-year bonding schedule, if Town Meeting backed it.

It was noted there have been fewer projects selected by the MSBA in the last three years, but the projects that have been selected are larger, entailing initiatives like building new high schools and elementary schools, which costs more money than something deemed as a repair.

With elementary enrollment most problematic at the Fox Hill and Pine Glen Elementary Schools, the tentative proposal is to raze Fox Hill and build a larger elementary school, similar to Memorial Elementary School, to handle the increased capacity. As for Pine Glen, the school would remain as is, but would undergo the necessary renovations to keep it operational. Fox Hill currently has modular classrooms on-site, so the capacity issues have already had an immediate impact on their class space.

Even if the elementary enrollment statement of interest was selected by the MSBA, Dr. Conti asserted it would take seven years to see the end of the project come to fruition. If/When the district got there, the in-depth discussion of reconfiguring the district would be the top priority. This may see crucial changes take place, such as a 5th grade academy or other grade configurations, which would require an abundance of feedback and steering from members of the community, parents and teachers.

As part of the approval that will send the proposed BHS upgrades to the MSBA as a statement of interest, the committee supported language that makes it a top priority for school officials to partake in a broader discussion on the elementary school needs. These conversations are expected to continue until they eventually evolve into a formal statement of interest for April 2020.

“We will talk to the MSBA, get feedback and submit the best application possible,” Dr. Conti said of the steps school officials are taking with the BHS statement of interest for this year. “The MSBA has no memory, so they do not account for us submitting this [statement of interest] seven years in row before this one was submitted for an eighth time on April 12.”

Though the elementary school needs are right at the top of the committee’s list of priorities, School Committee member Thomas Murphy, Jr. explained why the timeframe didn’t work to submit a statement of interest in 2019.

“The certain sentiment is it is time for shift our focus, but we are in agreement there is not enough time to flush out [an elementary school statement of interest] between now and [April 12, 2019],” acknowledged Murphy. “It does not make sense to not submit anything, so we will submit [the BHS HVAC and science classrooms proposal] again and keep our fingers crossed. In the meantime, we need to have serious discussions about options and paying for this project without the state’s assistance.”

The MSBA will reveal the statement of interest projects they will move forward with in December.

Configuration options

The New England School Development Council (NESDEC), a private, not-for-profit educational organization with approximately 300 school districts as affiliates including Burlington, was utilized the district for student enrollment projections.

As a benefit of affiliation, NESDEC prepares more than 250 enrollment projections and updates each year for school districts throughout New England. These 10-year projections are designed to provide its affiliates with yearly, up-to-date enrollment information that can be used by boards and administrators for effective planning and allocation of resources.

The 10-year projections for enrollment in Burlington reveal a 10 percent growth over the next seven to eight years.

“Under the NESDEC projections, we would need a construct an 800-student elementary school or rehab [Pine Glen and Fox Hill],” Murphy said of the options.

School Committee members Stephen Nelson and Christine Monaco believe the most sensible option is to ensure the district continues to have four elementary schools, meaning that Pine Glen and Fox Hill would go through the rehab route.

“If we built one school for 800 students, that would take up to six years,” pointed out Nelson. “So, by the time it is built, student enrollment at the elementary level would increase by 300 students, according to the NESDEC projections, which would make the 800-student elementary school building useless.”

Monaco added, “I find it hard to imagine one giant school. I would rather continue to have four schools.”

Continuing with four elementary schools would maintain the same curriculum and program infrastructure that exists today, as opposed to the uncertainties of one giant school that would be too large to function normally in this school district.

Dr. Conti confirmed the elementary school building needs topic will be a standing agenda item for the School Committee over the next year. School officials will add this topic, in detail, to a Google document as a continuous chain letter among the School Committee and administration.

The primary topic of conversation at this point pertains around the various configuration options in regards to the most effective, popular way to approach addressing the capacity needs in the district’s elementary schools.

The options entailed keeping the current 4-site, 4-school configuration; convert Pine Glen Elementary School into a pre-kindergarten early childhood center, and the other three elementary schools would be configured for grades 3-5; maintain the 4-school configuration, but build two schools on the existing Fox Hill Elementary School site, where both schools would be led by two principals and function as two separate schools, while sharing some common space.

“Thorough research will take place on all the favorable options decided on by the [School Committee],” professed Dr. Conti. “I want to ensure we are making progress every day.”

The conversation is just getting started on these pressing matters facing the district and school officials, so expect updates at every School Committee meeting as the topic will be a standing agenda item for at least the next year. Officials will hear back from the MSBA regarding the status of the BHS HVAC and science classrooms upgrade statement of interest sometime in December.

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