These updates have been lightly edited for clarity and accuracy.
August 19, 2018
I hope your remaining days of summer are going well and that you are keeping cool!
I apologize for not being on top of School Updates this past year. My excuse has been that the major focus of last year was the High School Building project, and the communications subcommittee (led by Amy Speare and Kirsi Allison-Ampe) was doing such a fabulous job that there was less of a need for me to step in.
This year I hope to re-start monthly communications. I am aiming for the end of each month. If there is a particular topic that you are interested in seeing covered please reply to this email and I will try to address it during the year. If you wish to be removed from this list, let me know and I will remove you.
If you know anyone who wants to subscribe, they can do so here: https://jennifersusse.com/email-list/
The Big News
The current seniors were the first class to see a bump in enrollment after many years of pretty predictable class sizes. Last year there were 333 of them.
The current kindergarten is likely to be over 600. Yes…over 600. The numbers won’t be finalized for many weeks, but that is what we are currently anticipating.
New High School
The MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) board met last week and voted a favorable recommendation on Arlington’s preferred option (what was once called option 3A). The final vote is expected on August 29th. Information about Arlington’s preferred option, FAQs, and other great stuff can be found here: https://ahsbuilding.org/
The vote on August 29th will mark the end of Module 3 – Feasibility Stage. The next stage is Module 4 – Schematic Design, where many of the details of what the school will look like—both inside and out—will be developed. Remember that the picture that is currently on the website is only a massing drawing that roughly indicates where programs and building elements will be located. The final design will be a lot more interesting, and will likely pay tribute to some of the design elements that people like in the current building. This is also the module that will develop the final scope, budget, and schedule for the project. Previous numbers and timelines were estimates only.
The goal is to finish the Schematic Design this spring, with the expectation of going to the voters in June for a Debt Exclusion to pay for the project.
Finally, the primaries are just around the corner – on Tuesday, September 4th. I will send my thoughts about them soon.
All the best!
December 13, 2017
We are currently at the beginning of the Feasibility Study. This is the stage where we decide where to locate the building (not a lot of options, of course), whether to renovate, tear down or do a little bit of both and what our educational space-needs will be. According to the last building committee meeting, I attended they are looking to have many of these fundamental questions answered by April 2018.
The Hardy principal search has just begun. The position was posted last Friday. Dr. Bodie will soon solicit two parent volunteers to serve on the search committee, as well as organize a focus group.
Arlington made Money Magazines’s 10 best places in America to Raise a Family Now.
November 16, 2017
Recently I’ve had some fun playing with Excel sheets and wanted to share data about our district’s enrollment growth. The first chart is familiar. It shows our enrollment growth over the past 15 years. You can see that until 2008 the district’s numbers were fairly stable. Since 2007 we have added 1,138 students to the Arlington public schools (a 26% increase), 771 of those students were added in the last five years (a 16% increase), and we expect to add another 500 students in the next five years (for a 15-year increase of about 40%). You can also see that most of the growth so far has been at the elementary level; it is only in the last few years that we have seen significant growth at the middle and H.S. level. Over the next few years we expect elementary growth to be more modest, and middle and H.S. growth to increase more dramatically.
The second chart shows the number of elementary classrooms in use at the Arlington Public Schools over the past 15 years, from 110 in 2002 to 137 today. With the exception of Stratton and Peirce, all of our elementary schools are very crowded; spaces that were once used as teacher-resource rooms, after-school rooms, computer labs, science rooms, breakout rooms, etc. have been repurposed as general education classrooms. The recent six-classroom addition to Thompson and the planned six-classroom addition to Hardy should help alleviate some of the strain of that growth.
The next two graphs are about class sizes at the elementary level. Class sizes at the middle and high school level have also increased, but that increase is harder to capture. The first shows the average elementary class size over the past 15 years, and the second shows how many of the elementary classes over time are in the desired 19-23 range (in yellow), below 19 (in green), or above (in red). These cut-off numbers are entirely mine and do not necessarily reflect either the Administration or any other School Committee member’s opinions. In the past 15 years elementary class sizes have increased from 20.14 to 21.96 (state average is 19.9 and national average is 21.1)*.
You will see that class sizes increased significantly in 2010 and have stayed at that inflated level since, despite the mitigating effects of the 2011 debt exclusion. For the most part class sizes have remained large because of the budgetary strains of our increasing enrollment, but lately another reason has been the lack of space in our buildings.
Note that class size variance is inevitable in a district that prioritizes district schools. The tools we have to reduce class size are crude. When students start at a school we can use buffer zones to help equalize class sizes. However, once kids are at a particular neighborhood school the only way to reduce class sizes at a grade is to add another teacher, which doesn’t always make sense.
I also want to say that I do not think that class size is the most significant metric in a district. Larger class sizes have not been shown to negatively affect academic achievement, especially in middle-class communities such as ours. The most important determinants for academic achievement are family background and teacher quality, and Arlington has terrific teachers. It is also important to remember that prioritizing smaller class sizes is one of the most expensive things a district can do. It may, and often does, make sense to trade a reduction in class sizes with other things we want to do as a district. It may be more important, for example, to add social workers and a Director of Guidance and Social and Emotional Learning than to add a few extra class room teachers. Nevertheless, class size numbers are useful in providing a snapshot of how our enrollment growth is straining our resources, which it most definitely is.
* Data is from 2015 as compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (https://nces.ed.gov/). It was interesting to compare state averages. 12 states had averages below 19 and 9 states had averages above 23.
November 12, 2017
I apologize for not keeping up with the School Updates lately. Partly this is because there is now so much information available about our schools that the need hasn’t felt as great. However, I will start sending more frequent updates soon. Meanwhile, here are some places to find a wealth of information about our schools and town:
(Drop down menu is hard to find; it is in the upper left corner of the picture)
Gibbs School Renovation:
Building Project: https://ahsbuilding.org/
H.S. Project Blog: https://ahsbuilding.org/blog/
School Budget Info: http://www.arlington.k12.ma.us/administration/budget/
Visual Budget: http://arlingtonvisualbudget.org
Public Annual Finance Reports: https://www.arlingtonma.gov/departments/town-manager/public-annual-financial-report-pafr
May 31, 20
It has been a while since I last sent a School Update. A lot has happened since then. We had an election (thank you to the 9% of Arlington that came out to vote!) and Jeff Theilman became Chair of the School Committee (thank you for your support last year as I stumbled about as Chair).
We are also currently doing a search for a new Assistant Superintendent (here is a list of the finalists), and a search for a principal at Ottoson. Thankfully Dr. Woods has indicated that she is willing to stay on next year if needed.
The big, and recent, news is our kindergarten numbers. As of May 15th these are our numbers:
Bishop – 55
Brackett – 81
Dallin – 67
Hardy – 83
Peirce – 64
Stratton – 63
Thompson – 72
The current total of 485 is expected to increase as enrollment continues throughout the spring and summer. Some schools, such as Thompson, traditionally experience a pretty significant enrollment bump over the summer. This year’s surprise is Peirce, which will have three Kindergarten classrooms next fall. Luckily Peirce has the space to accommodate this current enrollment surge, but they do not have enough space to accommodate three classrooms at every grade level, should these enrollment numbers become the new normal.
To put our enrollment numbers into perspective, as of April 1st we had a High School graduating class of 292, but a kindergarten class of 543.
Here is what is going on in the various school building projects:
Stratton – The Stratton renovation is proceeding on time and under budget. They are currently installing new windows and other finishing work on the classrooms. The gym and cafeteria will be completed over the summer. Classrooms are expected to be ready for occupancy by teachers at the end of the summer.
Thompson – The Thompson addition is behind schedule because of two delays in steel delivery. We have asked for, and received, a new construction schedule that includes weekend construction. As of now we still expect that the addition will be open in September, but there is a chance that the opening will be delayed.
Gibbs – The Gibbs design is almost complete, and work is expected to start at the beginning of July. The Gibbs committee is meeting to discuss colors and other matters. The Gibbs principal has been chosen – Kristin DeFrancisco, current principal of Hardy elementary school – which means that work on the curriculum and other details can begin over the summer. Recently parents had an opportunity to meet with Ms. DeFrancisco, and on Tuesday, June 13th there will be a parent forum at Town Hall to talk about Gibbs in greater detail.
Arlington H.S. – The High School building committee has created several subcommittees to focus on specific tasks. One of these subcommittees was tasked with choosing an Owner’s Project Manager (OPM). The OPM is one of the most important choices we have for the project. This is the person who will be our liaison between the architect and the administration, will help make sure that the project is proceeding on time and under budget and will help create opportunities for stakeholder engagement and input. The subcommittee is considering its final prospects now, with the hope of having recommendation the next time that they meet.
As these projects continue you should look here for more information
I want to recommend a couple of articles that the Advocate published recently about the balancing act that many municipalities, including Arlington, are dealing with as the state cuts education spending.
And here is an article that specifically talks about Arlington:
In the paper version there was a chart laying out the percentage of the operating budget that has come from state aid over time. In FY 02 21% of Arlington’s budget was from State Aid (17.3M out of 82.64M budget). In FY 17 that percentage had dropped to 13% (18.64% out of $147.5M).
What happened? Remember that in 2000 Massachusetts voters passed a ballot initiative requiring the state to reduce the income tax to 5 percent, from the then current rate of 5.85%. In 2002 Beacon Hill passed legislation allowing for a gradual reduction of the state income tax by 0.05 percent a year for each year in which certain economic conditions are met. Since then, there have been enough years in which these economic conditions have been met to trigger reductions, leading to the current tax rate of 5.10. However, it is hard to maintain the same level of services with a diminished revenue stream, especially given that an increasing percentage of the state budget is devoted to health care costs. The upshot is that because cities and towns are getting less help from the state they need to pass more operating overrides.
One additional piece of news. Despite its flawed methodology, it is still nice to see that Arlington H.S. is held in high esteem (12th in the state) by the U.S. News and World Report.
February 15, 2017
This morning the Arlington High School Project was officially invited into the Feasibility Study period by the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority). I was there for the vote, which was expected, but exciting nevertheless.
January 20, 2017
It has been a while since I’ve sent a school update. I’ve wanted to fill the community in on the various school building projects we have around town, but was waiting for more concrete information for a couple of them. Here is a summary of what I know so far.
S C H O O L P R O J E C T S
Gibbs – The Gibbs planning is going very well. After this fall’s community forums with teachers, parents/guardians and community members the architects worked with the school department to develop a plan that incorporates the priorities expressed in those forums, meets program space requirements and fits within the constraints of the building. I went to the community forum on Tuesday night. The design plan is impressive. Community members had questions and concerns about various details, which will hopefully be worked out by the advisory committee.
If you were not able to go to the presentation you can follow the Gibbs design process through documents posted on the district’s website:
Because many people have expressed concern to me about the Gibbs principal selection I would like to give you my thoughts on the matter. These are my individual thoughts; they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either the Administration or the School Committee.
I understand the desire to have a search that results in an innovative educational leader who can help shape the vision for the dedicated sixth grade. We have a unique opportunity to provide a truly transitional space between the relative protection of a K-5 education and the heightened demands of a secondary school education. It is an opportunity we do not want to waste. I do believe that there are visionary educational leaders already in Arlington who can play this role, but if it turns out that no internal candidate is suitable an external search could always be done next year. We would lose the advantage of having someone involved in the planning process a year earlier who already knows the district, but those costs would be worth bearing if there are no appropriate internal candidates. I suspect an external search will not be necessary, because there are potentially some excellent internal candidates, but the option is not completely closed off. Unfortunately we cannot open up this year’s search to external candidates, as we do not currently have money for the position in the Fiscal Year 18 budget.
In the next couple of weeks Dr. Bodie will form the Gibbs principal search committee, potentially from the members of the Gibbs advisory committee (if they are willing), as well as invite applicants to the Ottoson principal search committee.
Regarding the opportunity to hire candidates with diverse backgrounds. The same number of administrative-level positions will need to be filled through external searches, whether we hire externally for Gibbs or not. We are still doing an external search for the Ottoson principal, and if we hire an internal candidate for Gibbs we would need to hire someone to fill that newly vacated position. I encourage people to spread the word about Arlington to your personal networks. The reality is that we are always in competition with neighboring districts—many of which pay more than we do. Sometimes a personal connection can make the difference. I truly believe that the Arlington Public School District is a great place to work. Help us spread the word.
Stratton – Last summer modular classrooms were set up in the field next to Stratton. Students’ main classrooms are in those modular units, but they also use the cafeteria and gym in the main building. The project is proceeding on time with no major issues. Next summer work will be done on the cafeteria and gym. The newly refurbished Stratton will open next fall (Sept. 2017).
Thompson – Work on the Thompson addition began this fall, immediately following both the School Enrollment task force vote and the Town Meeting vote. The project has been slower than expected, due to permitting and drainage issues. We expect the steel to go up in February (weather permitting. It is scheduled to open next fall (Sept. 2017), provided that there are no major problems during the spring and summer.
Hardy – The School Enrollment Task Force met on December 21st, and voted to recommend a six-classroom addition to Hardy and to study the adequacy of the common spaces. The final plan is not yet settled but the Capital Planning Committee has agreed to fund the project out of their budget at 3.5 Million. The plan is to begin work this summer, to be open in the fall of 2018.
High School – We are almost finished with Modular 1, the Eligibility Period. Arlington submitted all the necessary documents a couple of months ago. Since then we have been meeting with the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) to determine the design-enrollment number, which we are close to an agreement on. We fully expect to be invited into Modular 2 and 3, where we form the Project Team and do a Feasibility Period, at their February board meeting. The Feasibility Study, which Arlington voted to fund last June, in an intensive process whereby all possible scenarios are considered—where to locate the school, whether to renovate or build new, what programmatic spaces to include, etc. Appropriate for the scale of this project this will be a thorough process of measuring eight times before any construction is done.
The MSBA has tons of information available on their web site. One good place to look is here: http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/building. As the project develops there will be more information specific to Arlington here: http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/node/40010
November 3, 2016
I wanted to send a note about upcoming events in our community. I hope to send another note soon, giving an overview of where we stand on the various school building projects. But before I do that, I wanted to remind people that one great way to get news about happenings in Arlington is to sign up for the Town’s notices. You can do that here.
If you are interested in the notes from the two very interesting Gibbs Visioning Meetings—one with teachers and the other with parents and community members—you can find that here.
High School Play – Friday, November 4th and Saturday, November 5th
“The Tony-winning play, based on the best-selling novels, upends the century-old story of how a miserable orphan boy becomes the legendary Peter Pan.”
Friday, November 4 at 7:30 PM
Saturday, November 5 at 2:00 PM & 7:30 PM
Tickets are available online here link, (with a small surcharge), from cast members, at the AHS main office, and at the door. Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for students and children high school age and under.
True Story Theatre – Sunday, November 6th
Support our town volunteers, and learn what inspired them, at True Story Theater’s annual performance and fundraiser BASH, Sunday November 6, 1-4pm at the Arlington Center for the Arts, 41 Foster St, Arlington, MA.
True Story Theater is an Arlington-based theater group, and an international leader in Playback Theater, an improvisational form which aims to build stronger, more inclusive communities. During True Story performances, audience members share their stories; then troupe members reenact those stories on the fly. The fundraiser will feature performances that dramatize the stories of town volunteers and the people they’ve served. The proceeds will support Arlington’s Living Brochure, a 2-year series of public performances and workshops highlighting and supporting volunteers on town committees.
In addition to performances by True Story Theater, there will be refreshments and a silent auction. Please buy tickets ahead of time for a $10 discount off the $35 admission price. The performance will start around 1:30. For more information, go to: www.TrueStoryTheater.com
Enrollment Task Force Meeting – Monday, Nov. 7th
The Enrollment Task Force will be meeting on Monday at 7:00 in the School Committee room on the 6th floor of the Arlington High School.
Election Day – Tuesday, November 8th
I suspect many of you are aware that Tuesday is election day. Last I checked about a quarter of our town’s registered voters have already voted. If you haven’t yet voted I urge you once again to vote NO on Proposition 2. Boston’s mayor Marty Walsh had a great editorial in the Boston Globe last week that is worth reading. You can find it here.
If anyone is available for sign holding please reply and I will connect you to Linda Hanson, who is organizing that effort. They are looking for people to hold signs from 7:00 AM – 9:00 AM, 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM – 8:00 PM.
Community Dialogue on Education – Wednesday, November 16th at 7:00 in the Lowe Auditorium, AHS
Arlington residents are invited to attend a free public screening of the critically acclaimed documentary “Most Likely to Succeed”. It’s the story of a high school which was rethought from the ground up with intriguing results. It touches on a range of topics including innovation, curriculum, and school design. The documentary will be followed by an open discussion about the movie’s themes and our community’s definitions of success and excellence in our public schools.
Arlington’s Vision 2020 Education Task Group is working in collaboration with the Arlington Public Schools and Arlington School Committee to bring this thought provoking documentary to the community. The documentary and book have been used in thousands of community discussions about public education. http://www.mltsfilm.org/
Vision 2020 is planning a series of sessions over the 2016-17 school year to engage the Arlington community in a dialogue about how we define success and excellence in our public schools.
When the town made the decision to convert Gibbs back to a school many people in our community expressed the hope that a place would be found for one of its valued tenants, the Arlington Center for the Arts (ACA). Due to tremendous effort by both our Town leadership and community volunteers, ACA has identified what could potentially be a great home in the old Central School, home to the current Senior Center. While they have succeeded in reaching their first funding milestone they still need more money to make this new home a reality. They are looking to raise $600K, or about $33 per household. To donate to the fund please go to: http://www.acarts.org/future-fund
October 4, 2016
On November 8th Arlington voters will go to the polls to elect the next President of the United States, as well as our representatives for state and national offices. We will also be asked to vote on four ballot questions. I am writing to urge you to vote NO on Question 2.
A vote on Question 2 is not a vote for or against charter schools in general. It is a vote for or against this particular ballot question. A yes vote on Question 2 would allow the state to add up to 12 additional charter schools per year, or 1% of the Massachusetts student population in perpetuity without any restrictions. In my opinion such legislation would be a mistake.
I think that Massachusetts does a better job than most states at monitoring charter schools and shutting down ones that are failing. There are some great charter school in Massachusetts, just as there are some great public schools in Massachusetts. Similarly, there are some problematic charter schools in Massachusetts, just as there are some problematic public schools in Massachusetts.
The problem is with the funding mechanism for charters, and with the fact that there is no local control. Arlington currently sends eight students to charters, which costs us about 100K. This amount is taken from our Chapter 70 funds without us having any say in or oversight over their governance, such as we have for the Minuteman Regional Vocational Tech School.
A few months ago there was the possibility of a Waldorf style charter school being set up near Arlington. I suspect that some Arlington parents would be interested in sending their children to such a school, not because Arlington schools are failing (they are clearly not), but simply because they like the Waldorf philosophy but can’t afford private school tuition. Suppose that tomorrow 1% of our students were to go to this new charter school (about 55 students). The amount that the state would deduct from our Chapter 70 funds would be more than half a million dollars. Needless to say the savings that the Arlington Public Schools would realize with 55 fewer students would be significantly less than half a million dollars. The end result would be that our budget, which is already 10% less than the districts to which we compare ourselves to, would be stretched even farther.
This year the Legislature tried to craft a compromise piece of legislation; an effort which failed. But that does not mean that all future attempts are doomed to failure. Regardless of your opinions about charter schools in general I urge you not to support this flawed piece of legislation and to vote NO on Question 2.
Feel free to reach out to me with questions and comments. If you already know that you are voting NO on Question 2, please send me your name and address so that the campaign can cross you off their lists and direct their resources elsewhere.
September 11, 2016
For those with kids in the school system I hope your transition went well. For others, September is often a transition as well. I hope that went well too.
I wanted to pass on some information we received at our last School Committee meeting. The big news is our continued enrollment growth. As of last week there were 558 kindergarteners in the Arlington public school buildings. Thankfully, the buffer zones enabled the class-sizes to be pretty consistent–between 22 and 24 per class.
The number of kindergarteners exceeds our previous record two years ago of 510. To understand the scale of this growth consider that last year’s senior class had 318 students and that this year’s senior class has 304 students. But students were added at all levels. This year we had the same number of students in 9th grade as there were in 8th grade last year (338), despite sending 30 students to Minuteman. District-wide there are 5,498 students in Arlington schools. Last year there were 5,252, a 4.7% increase. Note that these are unofficial numbers. The official numbers will be generated on October 1st, and certified by the state a month or two later.
The Stratton modulars are in place. ACMI has done a great segment on them, which you can find here: http://news.acmi.tv/segments/stratton-modulars/
The Thompson modulars are also in place. They did a great job integrating them into the current building.
On October 5th the School Enrollment task force will meet to decide whether to add a permanent addition to the Thompson. Thompson was designed for 380 students. This year there are 464 students, and it is projected to exceed 500 in the next few years.
On October 19th there will be a town meeting to hopefully authorize the funds for the new Thompson addition. Although in June the town voted overwhelmingly to raise the tax levy to fund an addition, Town Meeting still needs to vote to authorize the funds for that purpose. At that Town Meeting we might also be asking for money to fund some modulars at Ottoson until the Gibbs is available.
The architect Feingold Alexander Architects has been chosen for GIbbs. There is a new process whereby the architects works in conjunction with three pre-certified contractors to develop design documents. That work is occurring right now, with the expectation that they will begin work next July when the current tenants’ lease is up.
We are moving along on with the High School building process. The final Building Committee has been chosen. There are 17 members, 2 of which are from the School Committee, and 7 of which are community members. Look for an official announcement in the coming weeks.
Other news. Rob Spiegel, the APS’s human resources officer, is looking for substitute teachers, substitute secretaries, and substitute crossing guards. If this is something you would be interested in doing please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, don’t forget to vote on Tuesday, September 20th for Minuteman building project. Polls will be open from noon until 8:00 PM at your usual polling places (with the exception of the polling places that usually vote at Stratton). Shoot me an e-mail if you have any questions about where your polling place is.
A lot has happened over the last several weeks. Yesterday the Board of Selectmen decided hold an election on Tuesday, June 14th to exclude from Proposition 2.5 the money needed to: i) create a feasibility study of our options for a High School rebuild or renovation, ii) expand capacity at the Middle School level, iii) add capacity at Thompson with a permanent addition, and iv) pay for a potential rebuild or renovation at Minuteman.
It is important to recognize what is at stake. If voters decide not to raise taxes to expand capacity at the middle and elementary school level, then those projects will be threatened and we are looking at extremely overcrowded schools. If voters decide not to raise taxes to pay for a Minuteman rebuild or renovation, we are still on the hook for that money and we would have to pay for the capital costs by cutting town services (teachers, public safety, and road repair). Frankly neither scenario is attractive. I urge you to vote YES on June 14th and to volunteer your time and money, if you are able. I will send information soon on how to do that. The campaign is titled Build Arlington’s Future.
On Thursday April 28th the School Enrollment Task Force (SETF) is meeting at Town Hall at 7:00 to hear a report from HMFH Architects on the cost and feasibility of the remaining two options for expanding capacity at the middle school level—adding to Ottoson or repurposing the Gibbs for school use. On Monday, May 2nd the SETF will offer their recommendation. If the recommendation is to repurpose Gibbs for school use, then the School Committee will have an important decision to make. We will need to decide whether Gibbs will be a town-wide 6th grade or a smaller 6-8th grade middle school. In making the decision we will have to weigh the logistical challenges of each option. In the case of a town-wide 6th grade there are logistical challenges involving our Special Education programs. In the case of a smaller middle school there are logistical challenges involving splitting up grade-level teachers, ensuring equity across schools of different sizes, and maintaining the current cluster model.
But we will also have to weigh competing visions. On the one hand there is the vision of smaller neighborhood middle schools that 68% of our students can easily walk to. On the other hand there is the vision of a school that offers a transitional space to accommodate the unique social, emotional, and academic needs of 6th grade students. For information on Ottoson teachers’ perspective please see the April 14th Middle School Option presentation in the following link:
I have some tentative good news about our financial picture. So far we have seen the Governor’s and the House’s proposed budget. The Senate’s budget is expected at the end of May. As of now it looks as if the kindergarten grant is not going to be eliminated, which will allow the Arlington Public Schools (APS) to hire full-time kindergarten aids. Also it looks as if Chapter 70 money may be slightly higher than we expected. Under the current Town Manager’s budget proposal the APS receives any money above what was initially budgeted. It looks like we have the potential to receive an additional $171 thousand dollars, which will likely be used to address our expected enrollment growth.
Over the past three weeks the School Enrollment Task force has had two meetings, at which they decided to take the options of the 8th grade at the H.S. and building a new middle school on recreational land off the table. The two remaining options to address the enrollment challenges at the middle school level are to expand Ottoson or to reclaim the Gibbs for school use. The Task Force agreed to do a more detailed study of the costs of these two options, to be paid for by both school and town reserves. These studies are expected to take around six weeks and will be completed before the Special Town Meeting in late April.
Among political officials there is broad consensus that we will need to go to the voters for several debt exclusions to pay for our school building needs, but there is not yet a consensus as to the timing or scope of these votes. Our first debt exclusion vote could happen as early as this spring or as late as November 8th. If in the spring June 18th is the date that is most often mentioned.
Included on the ballot will be costs for a feasibility study for the High School, a likely addition at Thompson, and middle school renovations at either Gibbs or Ottoson. A ballot vote to authorize the town to borrow money for a new High School will happen after we have better numbers from the feasibility study (which is expected to take at least a year). It isn’t clear when we would go to voters for a solution to expected overcrowding at Hardy, or if we can shift enough students with buffer zone expansions to avoid that project.
Complicating matters is the strong possibility that the Town will need to go to the voters for a debt exclusion for Minuteman if the building project is approved. Arlington’s share of a new Minuteman building is expected to be between $34 and $40 million. Here is the timing for Minuteman.
- Over the next 60 days the 16 towns that are part of the Minuteman regional
district, including Arlington, will vote on whether to approve the new building.
- As soon as one town says no (which everyone expects to happen) the Minuteman
School Committee is likely to call a regional vote to approve the building. This vote
is expected to happen sometime in mid May.
- If the vote passes by a majority of residents across all 16 towns, then Arlington will
have to find a way to pay for the building, which means that we will need to ask
voters for a debt exclusion.
A brief explanation of the difference between a debt exclusion vote and an override vote. A debt exclusion is similar to a mortgage. To fund a project–e.g., new building or large-scale renovations–the town borrows money for either 20 or 30 years. Taxes are raised to pay for the financing of the debt. Similar to a mortgage the amount we need to pay each year is fixed, which means that the real cost of the project to taxpayers will decrease over time, because inflation will erode the value of those fixed payments. Also, similar to a mortgage, the cost will eventually go away, albeit in 30 years.
An override is an increase to the tax base. In 1980 voters in Massachusetts passed proposition 2.5%, which is a restriction on how much the average taxes in a town can go up each year. The only exception to the 2.5% cap is new growth. Arlington has very little new growth, but what it has ensures that tax receipts can effectively go up by around 3%. In towns with lots of open space for new business development (Burlington, for example) their taxes receipts can go up by much much more, which allows them to avoid overrides.
Other towns, like Arlington, have less open space on which to build and so need periodic overrides because the cost of services are going up by more than 3% a year. Arlington will always have what is known as a structural deficit (costs going up by more than 3% a year) as long as costs for health insurance, pensions, and special education are going up by more than 3% a year, which they are. Additionally, the cost of educating Arlington’s students is currently going up by more than 3% a year because of our rapid enrollment growth.
In 2011 Arlington passed an override that was expected to last three years. Because of sound financial planning in the town we are currently in the 5th year of that 3-year override, but eventually we will need to go to the voters for another one. According to the Town’s current five-year financial plan the latest another override can happen is in 2020.
So, Arlington is facing many tax increases in the future: our need to fund building projects to handle school enrollment challenges, the Minuteman building, our new High School building, and an upcoming override vote.
Passing these tax increases will not be easy. They will require troves of dedicated community members. We have done it before, and we can do it again, but no one should underestimate the amount of work it will take.
I have been meaning to write something about school financing for a while. The Arlington Public Schools (APS) gets most of their funding from the Town. This year the proposed Town appropriation is a little over $57 million dollars. The Town does get some money from the State for education via Chapter 70 funding, but Chapter 70 money accounts for less than $11 million dollars. The rest of the Town funding comes from money that is collected in taxes and fees (94% of Arlington’s property taxes are residential). While most of the funding for our schools comes from the Town, the APS also gets money from two other sources: grants (estimated to be little over 2 million) and revolving fees and reimbursements (estimated to be about 3.5 million). Combining these three sources of revenue results in a proposed school budget for the 2016/17 school year of over $62.6 million.
You can read the entire 197 page proposed budget here:
This Thursday 2/25 at 6:30 in the School Committee Room (6th floor of the H.S.) there will be an opportunity for the public to comment on the school budget.
A couple of months ago the School Committee and Administration successfully lobbied for an increase in what is known as the enrollment growth factor. This is the amount that the APS receives from the Town for each additional student enrolled. While the increase is less than what we feel is needed, the negotiations did result in a net increase to our budget of over 3.2 million dollars. Most of that money will go to contractual and salary increases, giving us a little over 1.5 million for additional investments. Additional investments are needed to handle enrollment growth, State mandates such as the Common Core, and the need to close the achievement gap for our high needs students. While the 1.5 million is welcome, the actual amount that curriculum leaders and the administration felt was needed this year is over 3.8 million. Not funding these additional requests means that class sizes across all levels will remain high, we will continue to have difficulty recruiting and retaining Teaching Assistants, High School students will have more directed studies than is desirable, and some old and worn out curriculum materials will not be replaced. You can find more information about the impact of not funding these requests means in the link above.
It is helpful to compare our level of funding with other communities across the commonwealth. There are two sets of communities that we compare ourselves to: The Town Manager 12 Communities and DART communities. The Town Manager 12 Communities are communities that are most comparable to us in size and fiscal situation. They are Belmont, Brookline, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Natick, Needham, North Andover, Reading, Stoneham, Watertown, and Winchester. Per pupil spending in these towns ranges from $11,915 to $17,291, with a median of $13,499. The DART communities are communities that the Massachusetts Department of Education has decided are educationally most similar to us in size, number of low income students, ELL students, students with disabilities, etc. The basket of communities changes each year. This year our DART comparison communities are Ashland, Burlington, Lexington, Milton, Natick, Shrewsbury, Wachusett, Walpole, Westborough and Winchester. The per pupil spending in these towns ranges from $11,131 to $17,700, with a median of $13,501. In contrast Arlington’s per pupil spending is $13,085 and the State average is $14,518. All numbers are for the 2013/14 school year, or Fiscal Year 2014, which is the most recent year for which we have reliable numbers.
Here is a quick snapshot of the per pupil spending in communities that Arlingtonian parents sometimes compare ourselves to:
When comparing per pupil spending it is helpful to compare the percentages of low income, students with disabilities, and English language learners in each community. Some communities, such a Belmont and Winchester whose per pupil spending is lower, also have lower percentages of students in each of these categories. You can find those percentages here: http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/state_report/selectedpopulations.aspx, and you can find a wealth of other information at the Department of Education’s website here: http://www.doe.mass.edu/
One more issue: The Foundation Budget. In 1993 the State came up with a formula for how much it costs to educate a student in Massachusetts. For political reasons the formula was not updated until last year, when a Commission met to come up with a more honest (though still conservative) picture of what a 21st century education costs in Massachusetts. The Commission did make recommendations as to how to revise the Foundation Budget, but it will be up to the Legislature and Governor to implement those recommendations and allocate the necessary funding. Were the Foundation Budget to be fully funded Arlington would receive an additional $3.5 million dollars in Chapter 70 money.
So how can you help get more money for education in Arlington? Here are some ideas.
- We can lobby our legislators to increase Chapter 70 money. This year any additional Chapter 70 money above a certain amount goes to the schools.
- We can lobby our legislators to fully fund the Foundation Budget.
- We can work to pass the “Millionaire Tax” which would increase funding for education and transportation.
- We can lobby town officials to increase education spending in Arlington.
- We can work on overrides and debt exclusions to fund educational needs in Arlington.
- And, we can stay informed about all aspects of the budget process.
Our State legislators are supportive of public education, but it is helpful to them in their lobbying efforts to be able to point to a high volume of constituent communications. If you are interested in lobbying your State legislators they can be reached here:
If you are interested in sending your thoughts to the Budget Subcommittee of the School Committee you can do so here: ASCBudget2016@gmail.com.
As many of you have probably heard the MSBA voted unanimously this morning to move forward in addressing the needs of the Arlington High School. This past year there were 97 applicants to the MSBA grant program, of which Arlington was among 26 districts selected to continue. Another formal vote will be taken in the spring.
I am still trying to figure out what Arlington needs to do before the spring vote. My guess is that at minimum we will need to form a school building committee and go to Town Meeting to secure money for a feasibility study.
There were two important meetings on Tuesday, January 12th. The Enrollment Task Force meet in the evening. By unanimous vote they agreed to recommend to the Special Town meeting on January 25th that we install two temporary modulars at Thompson for the 2016/17 school year. They did not recommend permanent construction at this time. Some members of the school committee (me, for example) are worried about the delay. If enrollment trends continue, as we believe they will, Thompson will need an additional two classes in 2017/18 (for a total of four) and Hardy will need one additional class (for a total of 5 classes needed in East Arlington by September 2017). For permanent construction we will need time to draw up architectural plans, create construction documents, put the job out to bid, etc. Ideally some of this work should be done this spring and summer.
My notes on the second important meeting are long. Read only if you have the time.
The second important meeting was the Long Range Planning meeting. At that meeting the school department continued to argue that they need more money from the Town. There are two components to the ask: They would like to increase the base amount that they receive from the Town, and they would like to increase the “enrollment growth factor”, which is the extra amount the school department receives for each additional student enrolled. This extra amount is calculated as a percentage of per-pupil spending. Currently the enrollment growth factor is 25%. Here’s a simplified example of how this works. Suppose that enrollment goes up by 100 students this year and per pupil spending is $13,000, then next year the Arlington Public Schools would get an additional $3,250 per additional student (.25 x $13,000) or $325,000 from the Town. The money is received a year after we have had to make spending decisions to accommodate the growth, but it is still valuable. The problem it that in the last few years the 25% hasn’t fully covered the cost of adding 534 students.
So how have we managed? Where we could we have tried to keep elementary classes below 25 students. However, we have had to cut corners in other areas. For example, we have spent next to nothing on curriculum supplies. Our current 7th grade geography books were published in 1983, 1990 and 1998. Current science materials are over 19 years old. At the elementary level there are 33 doubled-up gyms across the district, mainly because we do not have enough gym teachers. At the middle-school level our specialist class sizes are much too large, the nurse’s office is stretched thin, and we had to cut back on some foreign language offerings. At the High School we have delayed repairs and 25% of our classes have more than 25 students. Were we to keep the current funding formula H.S. students would end up taking more directed studies than they do now.
In addition to the Growth Factor the Arlington Public Schools also gets a percentage increase in their General Education and Special Education allocation. Most of that amount is used to cover contractual obligators such a salary increases (which include cost of living adjustments and extra compensation for longevity and additional academic credentials), but a small amount is left each year to handle additional needs. Our additional needs are dictated by our enrollment increases, new state and federal mandates, and other assessed needs. From 2011-2014 that percentage increase was dictated by the promises made for the three-year override we passed in 2011—a 3.5% increase on General Ed Spending and a 7% increase on Special Education spending. Last year the finance committee argued that we should decrease the rate of growth in General Ed spending to 3.25% next year and 3.0% the following year. Town budgets were also reduced to a 3.25 annual increase last year and a 3.0% increase next year. The reduction was put in place to delay the date when we would need to go to voters for our next operating override to cover our structural deficit. Under the current plan the three-year override will last 8-12 years.
The likely result is that the schools will get a small increase to both the base and the enrollment growth factor. The need to balance the Town’s budget means that the increase will likely be less than we think is needed, and likely more than the current formula would have allowed.
I hope everyone has had a relaxing break. Mine was happily rich in friends, family, and too many cookies.
The Enrollment Task Force is meeting on Tuesday, January 5th at 7:00 in the Lyon’s Hearing Room in Town Hall
On Thursday, January 7th at 7:00 in the Town Hall Auditorium there will be an interactive public meeting to discuss our enrollment challenges. We are still finalizing the details for the small group break-out discussions. If there is a subject you would particularly like to discuss please reply to this e-mail with your idea(s).
We are extremely encouraged by the news that the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) will be recommending to their board that Arlington H.S. be considered for renovation or rebuilding. The board is meeting on January 27th, after which we hope to receive a favorable vote.
If we are invited into the grant program on January 27th the Town has 270 days to:
* Form a School Building Committee and submit the names of the committee to the MSBA for approval.
* Secure funding from Town Meeting for a feasibility study.
* Execute a Feasibility Study Agreement, which establishes a process in which the Town commits to work with the MSBA to secure an architect and other professionals to conduct a feasibility study.
All this will take time. The benefit of the potential partnership is that it allows our school district to receive up to 55% reimbursement from the State. Throughout the process there is ample opportunity for the public to comment on the various options identified by the feasibility study. All meetings will be open to the public.
Were we to be accepted by the MSBA the High School could be completed by the fall of 2021.
I suspect that the School Enrollment Task Force will be discussing the process in more detail at its meeting on Tuesday, January 5th at 7:00 p.m. at the Lyons Hearing Room in Town Hall. We will also be providing more details at the Community Forum on January 7th in the main space at Town Hall.
A lot has gone on in the last few weeks. There have been two meetings of the Enrollment Task Force. A third meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, December 22nd at 7:00 PM in the Lyons Hearing Room. So far the focus has been on what to do about enrollment growth at the elementary level in East Arlington, specifically at Thompson. The current recommendation by the School Administration is to add six permanent classrooms at Thompson, potentially using one of the classrooms as an auxiliary gym space. The Thompson community is interested in expanding their common space. Currently they have one of the smallest gym spaces in town (though Stratton and Bishop are smaller) and smallest cafeteria spaces.
If you are interested in getting involved in the East Arlington decisions, or finding information about enrollment issues in general, you should visit the following page created by some Thompson parents:
The Enrollment Task Force has not yet grappled with the decision about what to do about enrollment growth at the Middle School. Currently there are 1130 students at Ottoson, making us the 7th largest middle school in the state. The current projections anticipate that we will have over 1300 students in 2020, and over 1400 students in 2025. It is because of enrollment growth at the Middle School that we are considering reclaiming the Gibbs, though there are other possible solutions, including bringing the 8th grade to the H.S., or building a 6th grade building on the Cusher lot wooded area next to Ottoson (as well as many more possibilities).
Town-Wide Visioning Meeting
There will be a town-wide Visioning Meeting on Thursday, January 7th at 7:00 in Town Hall. There we will engage in exercises designed to bring out our thoughts, hopes, fears, and questions about decisions surrounding our enrollment growth. Please tell friends and neighbors. We welcome the entire community, whether you currently have kids in the schools or not.
There is a special Town Meeting on Monday, January 25th. At that Town Meeting we will be voting on money to fund the modulars at Stratton during their rebuild. The plan is to rebuild the Stratton classrooms during 2016-17, and then rebuild the common space during the summer of 2017. At the Special Town Meeting there is a possibility that we will be voting on money for additions at Thompson then as well.
We should know soon whether we have been accepted by the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Association) to rebuild the High School for this year. We were told that we would know the decision sometime between December 21st and December 31st.
On Thursday, December 17th the School Committee voted to administer PARCC in the spring of 2016. The following year (spring of 2017) all students in Massachusetts will be taking MACAS 2.0, which will be heavily based on the PARCC test. It was thought that it would be valuable to try out PARCC next year to prepare for the next generation test. Arlington’s approach this year is that we are just “testing the test”. We will not be doing any additional test prep, and students, parents, and teachers will be told that this is a trial year. Officially our results will be “held harmless” by the State, which means that our ranking cannot slip over the next two years. The current thinking is for students to take PARCC next year on IPads at Ottoson and one or two elementary schools. Students at the remaining elementary schools will take PARCC on paper. Current 10th grade students will still take MCAS. Current 7th grade students, and younger, will need to take MCAS 2.0 on a computer when they get to 10th grade. One difference between PARCC and MCAS is that PARCC is timed. It is unclear whether MCAS 2.0 will be timed.
The School department is going before the Long Range Planning Committee on Monday to request additional money for our operating expenses. Because of a variety of factors, including unfunded mandates such as the move to the Common Core, and our need to ensure that ALL our students are making adequate yearly progress, the costs of educating students is going up. However, the biggest stress on our budget is our enrollment growth (534 students, an 11% increase, in the last four years). Because of our enrollment growth we have had to spend additional money just to maintain level services. Next year we are in crisis. We cannot maintain level services within our current budget plan. Under the current budget plan general education costs can only rise 3.25% (a .25% drop from last year), SPED costs are allowed to rise 7.0% and we get 25% of per-pupil spending for each additional student added to the APS (currently we get a little over 3K). The problem is that it the marginal cost of educating an additional student in Arlington is more than $3K. We are looking for an adjustment in the “enrollment growth factor” (the percentage of per pupil expenses we receive for each additional student).
The next two Enrollment Task Force meetings are on Wednesday, December 9th and Tuesday, December 22nd. Each is at 7:00 in the Lyon’s Hearing Room at the Arlington Town Hall.
The time when we will learn about the decision by the MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) has been pushed back a little. We will have a decision about the high school no earlier than December 21st, but before December 31st.
For those of you who are not on the list to receive the Superintendent’s Newsletter I encourage you to register here:
Here is a link to the latest newsletter:
The first meeting of the School Enrollment Task Force is on Monday, November 30th in the Lyon’s Hearing Room at Town Hall. This is an open meeting, which means that the public is welcome to watch, but it will also be a working meeting, so opportunity for public involvement will be limited to brief comments at the beginning or end.
I would encourage people who are interested in following the discussion to work out arrangements with larger interest groups. For example, each PTO might want to designate someone to go to the meetings and report back to their community.
Other things coming up:
* In December the School Committee will vote on whether students will take PARCC or MCAS this spring. In 2017 all districts will be required to take MCAS 2.0, which will be a combination of the best of MCAS and the best of PARCC. All districts are expected to move to an entirely computerized exam by 2019.
On January 7th we will be holding a public Visioning Exercise to help guide us in our decisions on our enrollment challenges. Snow date is Wednesday, January 13th.
On January 25th there will be Special Town Meeting to vote on funding for the Stratton modulars. There is a possibility that we will also be voting then on modulars to handle enrollment growth at Thompson as well.
Beacon Hill just announced the results of their Foundation Budget Review Commission. This is the first time since 1993 that our legislatures have looked at how much it costs to fully fund education in Massachusetts. To no one’s surprise it turns out that the state has been underestimating the cost of, and as a result underfunding, education in our State for years. The School Committee is working on how to best use the results of the Review Commission to advocate for more spending on education in Arlington.
As expected, Mitchell Chester issued a recommendation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education today that the state transition to a next generation MCAS test. This new generation test will be given for the first time in spring 2017. The new state assessment will be based on PARCC, but will be under state control. The school committee will have to made a decision soon about which test Arlington students will take this spring.
The School Enrollment Task Force (SETF) is soon expected to set a date for their first meeting. As of now it consists of Adam Chapdelaine, the Town Manager; Dr. Kathleen Bodie, the Superintendent; three members of the School Committee (Bill Hayner, Cindy Starks, and Jeff Thielman); and two members of the Board of Selectman (Joe Curro and Diane Mahon). There will also be representation from the Capital Planning Committee, Finance Committee, and Permanent Town Building Committee. They expect to meet about twice a month.
Task force meetings are open to the public and there will be an opportunity for public comment, similar to the way that comments work at Board of Selectmen or School Committee meetings. To solicit thoughts, ideas, and information more widely from the public we are also looking to hold a “visioning” meeting in the first week of January. By then we should know whether the High School has been accepted in the MSBA’s (Massachusetts School Building Authority’s) grant program.
I’ve attached a document I created listing all the options that have been suggested so far to handle enrollment growth. These are options that people in the community have offered in either public meetings, e-mails, or personal conversations. The ideas range from practical to creative, as is appropriate at this stage. If you have any additional suggestions or comments, or if you think I missed a significant concern or advantage, please send them along soon. I hope to present the “final” draft to the Task Force at their first meeting.
The big news this week is that Michael Chester, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, is considering recommending a third option for our state assessments, MCAS 2.0. On November 17th the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to vote on whether to adopt PARCC or stay with MCAS. Adopting a third option would allow us to keep control of the test within Massachusetts. Out of the original 23 states + D.C. that were originally in the PARCC consortium only 7 + D.C. are left. As of now we have no idea what such a move would mean for mean for which assessment Arlington would administer. Last year the Arlington School Committee voted not to adapt PARCC a year early. I voted against early adoption primarily because the status of the test seemed to be in flux.
Plans are underway for a town-wide committee to address our enrollment challenges, called The School Enrollment Task Force. Representation from the School Committee includes Dr. Bodie, Cindy Starks, Bill Hayner and Jeff Thielman. The Town Manager, Adam Chapdelaine, is also expected to be a member, and we expect representative from the Board of Selectmen, the Capital Planning Committee, the Permanent Town Building Committee, and perhaps the Finance Committee. They are looking to hold the first meeting sometime in early November. Meetings will be announced at least 48 hours in advance and will be open to the public.
I forgot to mention the High School last time I wrote. Last month representatives from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) toured the H.S. in what is known as a Senior Study. Such a study is a prerequisite for being accepted by the MSBA into their grant program. We will know whether we have been accepted for this year sometime in December.
Here is what acceptance would mean. Because Arlington’s tax dollars are stretched thin, in order to build a new High School we need help from the state. Once we are accepted by the MSBA then the State is committed to paying for at least 40% of the costs of the building. After acceptance the next step is to go to Town Meeting to request money for a feasibility study. The feasibility study will generate several options, one of which the MSBA would decide to fund. After that we would need to go to the voters and ask for a debt exclusion to fund our portion of the costs. Were we to be accepted this year we would potentially go to the voters in November of 2018 and we could move into the High School by September 2021. According to Dr. McKibbin’s forecasts our enrollment numbers in 2021 are expected to be 3177 at the Elementary School level (compared to 2870 today), 1432 at the Middle School level (compared to 1130 today) and 1467 at he High School level (compared to 1256 today).
To learn more about MSBA process go to http://www.massschoolbuildings.org/building
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