Third elementary school would be funded through operating override
In less than a month, Newton residents will vote on three tax increases tied to construction work on three elementary schools – Countryside, Franklin and Horace Mann. The Countryside and Franklin schools each have their own ballot measure asking for a tax increase, but work on Horace Mann is part of a larger increase that includes millions of dollars for the school budget and city services.
And some Horace Mann parents are worried that might mean their school misses out on construction that would make its programs equitable with other buildings.
“I think Horace Mann has kind of been lost in the discussion as a whole,” said Horace Mann parent Alec Zimmer, a member of the School Building Committee.
The operating override would add $9.2 million to the city’s budget, including $775,000 dedicated to work at the Horace Mann, along with other dedicated amounts like $4.5 million for the school budget and $1.4 million for roadwork. That tax increase will be permanent, while the other increases — $2.3 million for Countryside and $3.5 million for Franklin – will go off the books after 30 years.
Because Horace Mann’s work will cost less than the construction at the other schools, city CFO Maureen Lemieux said it was appropriate to fund it through the operating budget. And once that work is complete, those funds would help pay for other capital work.
But being part of the larger override might make Horace Mann’s work less appealing to voters, Zimmer said.
“Including us with the operating override in some ways puts us at a disadvantage. There’s community sentiment I’ve heard that the city is not a particularly good steward of taxpayers’ money,” Zimmer said.
What is now the Horace Mann school, located on Nevada Street in Nonantum, has gone through numerous changes in the past several years. The building used to be the Carr School, a decommissioned elementary school, while Horace Mann was originally located off Watertown Street by Albemarle Field.
But the city recommissioned the Carr school as a swing space for schools under construction – serving Angier and other schools — and has embarked on a building swap plan over the past few years. The Horace Mann school moved there from its Watertown Street location, which was renovated and is now the home of the Newton Early Childhood Program. NECP vacated its space on Jackson Road, which will become the new Lincoln-Eliot school, and the old Lincoln-Eliot school will become the new swing space for schools under construction.
The switch-ups have caused confusion, Horace Mann principal Mark Nardelli said, recalling a meeting to discuss construction at the building on Nevada Street.
“An older voter said ‘Why do we need to repair Horace Mann, it was just renovated?’ He didn’t realize that’s the [new location for the] preschool,” Nardelli said. “I’m genuinely concerned people don’t know it’s not the Carr school anymore, it’s Horace Mann.”
While the building on Nevada Street did see substantial infrastructure improvements in 2013, including repairs to the HVAC and heating systems, the classrooms did not get the same level of work because the building was only intended for temporary education use, Nardelli said. Many classrooms are 700 square feet, 200 square feet smaller than what state guidelines recommend, and the space for special education and support services is only 53 percent of what the state recommends.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of thought about what the building would be as a permanent residence,” Nardelli said. “We’re trying to run more current and modern philosophies around education in a space not designed for it.”
Both Nardelli and Zimmer praised teachers and support staff, but said the educators had to deal with poor building resources. Nardelli described crowded classrooms where children work at activity tables while underneath the tables other students use pillows and mats for reading space. The school added modular classrooms for fifth grade, but those are outside the main building, requiring students to go through a locked exterior door when they want to use the bathroom, Zimmer said.
The school’s library is the smallest in Newton schools, but the lack of space leads to more than just fewer resources, Nardelli said. Instead of being bunched together for collaboration, classes at the same grade level are spread out across the building. Intervention specialists often don’t have dedicated space, which affects their work, he said.
“The literacy room has four stations for four adults to run groups and the room is not that big; groups can hear each other. We want more of those spaces so kids who need the most intense reading support can go to a place free of distractions,” Nardelli said.
“It’s not equitable compared to new buildings,” Zimmer said. “Horace Mann [has] ended up holding the short end of the stick.”
Plans to expand, operating override
After parents protested in 2019, city and school officials started working on plans to add space to the building. The pandemic led to the project being put on hold, but last year a proposal took shape to add six classrooms to one side of the school and reconfigure the classroom space in the existing building, with an expected cost of $23 million.
But instead of that being funded through the city’s capital improvement plan, Zimmer said parents found out in October the construction would be paid for in part through the operating override — the $775,000 amount in the operating override would contribute $15.5 million over 20 years, with the remaining $7.5 million coming in free cash.
In 2013, Newton voters approved three override ballot questions, including individual questions for construction at the Angier and Cabot schools as well as an operating override. But Fuller administration spokesperson Ellen Ishkanian said that operating override also included funds for capital projects, including the Zervas School.
Lemieux said the Countryside School and Franklin School work will involve complete rebuilds that will cost significantly more than what’s planned for Horace Mann as well.
“We intend to bond a lower amount for the work at Horace Mann Elementary School, so we felt [it was] an appropriate project to include in the operating override,” Lemieux wrote in a statement. “Notably, similar to the 2013 overrides a decade ago, there are three override ballot questions, two debt exclusions questions and one operating override question which includes building projects.”
And Public Buildings Commissioner Josh Morse said funding Horace Mann through the operating override would provide money for future capital projects.
“Putting it in the operating budget helps build up capital capacity. Having a permanent source of funding for capital projects is extremely important,” Morse told the Beacon. “It allows us to take on the next Horace Mann[-level] project.”
But placing Horace Mann in the operating override groups it with other funds, instead of letting voters weigh in specifically on whether or not they support work at the school. Nardelli said he wasn’t sure if that would help or hurt approval of the tax increase.
“It’s hard for me to say what the right strategy is. One choice was to limit the number of questions. Does having Horace Mann in the operating override give people more incentive to vote for the operating override? Maybe that’s the thinking, but I could see it going the other way,” Nardelli said. “I’m apprehensive about it, but I don’t know if I’d feel better if the Horace Mann was by itself.”
And while Zimmer first thought being part of the operating override would be beneficial, he’s changed his mind.
“At the time I thought maybe it was a good thing to be in the operating override – there are lots of other things in the operating override that would get support, like roads and trees. I now feel perhaps it would’ve been better to be a separate debt exclusion, we could plead our case a bit more clearly,” Zimmer said. “Being lumped in with the operating override makes it an even harder sell.”
Zimmer said he and other parents are supporting the Countryside and Franklin overrides as well as the operating override, and they’re working with pro-override group Vote Yes For Newton to encourage residents to back the operating override. Zimmer said as a federal Title One school supporting low-income students, Horace Mann serves many families getting assistance, and needs the override to give them and all other students equitable services – and that in general, improved schools benefit the city.
“I hope voters look at how improving schools makes Newton more attractive to live in,” Zimmer said. “I hope that voters take the long view.”