Despite declining enrollment, officials say new building necessary
As Newton voters consider multiple tax increases, school officials are urging them to support major school construction projects as well a $4.5 million increase in the education operating budget. And while some groups are opposing all three increases, others who are skeptical of the operating override say they’re fine with paying up for improvements to deeply in-need buildings – including the not-fully-accessible Franklin School.
One of the three tax increase measures residents will vote on is a $3.5 million debt exclusion to fund major work at the Franklin School. That work is estimated to cost $61 million, but city officials and consultants are still determining whether to renovate the existing building or tear it down and build an entirely new structure, and are waiting for the outcome of the vote on March 14.
Besides the Franklin School debt exclusion, a $2.3 million debt exclusion for work at the Countryside School and a $9.2 million operating override for the city’s general budget – with $4.5 million dedicated to schools – are also on the ballot. The anti-override campaign group No Override Newton has said it opposes all three override questions, but others are considering splitting their votes.
Parent Sumukh Tendulkar said he would vote for the Franklin and Countryside debt exclusions, but was skeptical of the operating override.
“What do we get in return, where are we going? When I look at a hard asset like Countryside or Franklin I can see that, but when I look at the operating override I don’t see it,” Tendulkar said.
But Franklin Principal Mark Chitty said that $4.5 million would be necessary to properly staff those new buildings.
“In some ways I worry that the Franklin community could only pay attention to the Franklin piece – we need to do the work to support students no matter what their [building] structure is,” Chitty said. “It’s no good investing in a physical structure if we don’t have the staff and programming to do the work.”
‘Embarrassing’ and hard to access
The Franklin School was originally built in 1939 in West Newton, and the 45,000-square foot building got a 12,000-square foot addition in 1950 because of increasing enrollment. Another 5,000-square-foot addition was added in 1953 – but it “was not designed or constructed to anywhere near the same level as the 1938 or 1950 projects,” according to a 2022 bid document for architect services at the school.
The building, known as the “Octagon” because of its shape, has terrible temperature control, according to Public Buildings Commissioner Josh Morse. And because it is downslope and has repeatedly flooded, sandbags are now kept at the ready.
But the while the original building is sturdier, it has its own significant issues, Morse said. It has numerous staircases and six elevation changes within the building, and is not fully accessible or ADA compliant. As programming has expanded through the building, spaces have been re-appropriated – the library is in the basement, in the space of an old gym, and the music room used to be a bicycle storage room. Storage for the gym is now support space for education, and the afterschool room has bright colors but is in a windowless basement room, with a door covered in chicken wire blocking off the kiln for the undersized art room next door.
“It’s a dungeon, it’s embarrassing,” Morse said.
Spreading out space
While city officials tried to get state aid for work at the Franklin, the MSBA did not approve their application – although the state agency is preparing to cover between a quarter and a third of costs for the Countryside project, according to Fuller administration officials. That’s why the debt exclusion for the Countryside is set for $2.3 million while the Franklin debt exclusion is $3.5 million, but Morse said both schools would be renovated or rebuilt on the same timeline.
Last year, city officials hired HMFH Architects to conduct a feasibility study at the site, and Chitty said they and the school building committee are weighing three options – renovate and add to the existing building, demolish the existing building and build a new one on the same footprint, or demolish the existing building and build a new one over the current location of the school’s athletic fields.
Enrollment across Newton Public Schools is declining, consistent with state and national trends, school officials say. Elementary enrollment is projected to decline by 8 percent from now to 2027, from 4,998 students to 4,621, and Franklin is projected to go from 363 students to 281 – a 22 percent drop. Interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith has said school officials are looking at the “possibility of combination” of the Underwood and Ward schools because of decline in enrollments.
But Chitty said the most important thing a new school will provide is more and more efficient space, and that would be necessary even if enrollment goes down. Having not just classroom space but breakout areas and space for support staff will help the students’ social-emotional and mental health as well as their academic performance, he said.
“We’ve been building a richer tapestry of personnel infrastructure that helps us meet student needs better,” Chitty said. “If people think only in terms of total students … it doesn’t take away the need for other supports. We need more of the spaces that allow us to break out and provide interventions.”
NPS spokesperson Julie McDonough said a new Franklin School, like other recently built schools, would also have more space than required for special education. That’s so the school can host districtwide special education programs in the building, serving students from Newton schools outside of Franklin as well, she said.
Tendulkar said he was concerned about programming at new schools as well as enrollment, but thought new buildings could be a way to bring back some students that had left for other schools.
“They have talked about buildings but not academic excellence and quality in those buildings,” he said. “I’d love to see a plan that says we’ll build these beautiful facilities to attract students back to NPS from private schools.”
But the project is important in general as a community good, Tendulkar said.
“Franklin is not up to standard, as a community it becomes a question of value for us. It’s absolutely worth doing,” Tendulkar said.
Dan Atkinson can be reached at email@example.com.