Master plan finds overcrowding at elementary schools

By Douglas McCulloch | Aug 28, 2017
Photo by: Douglas McCulloch SMMA planner Philip Poinelli discusses the master plan.

Dartmouth elementary schools are overcrowded, and solutions to the problem have left School Committee members with sticker shock.

At the August 28 School Committee meeting, representatives from Symmes, Maini and McKee Associates presented an outline of the district’s master plan, which examined Dartmouth’s school buildings based on facility condition, educational needs, and a capacity analysis. The report found the most pressing issue facing district facilities is overcrowding at the elementary level.

The report found that enrollment in all of Dartmouth’s elementary schools except Quinn Elementary exceed building capacities. The largest gap is at the Cushman School, which has an enrollment of 171 students and a capacity of only 90 students.

“The reason we’ve done that is because of how drastically undersized the spaces [at Cushman] are,” planner Philip Poinelli said. “We looked at spaces supposed to be about 1,200 square feet and many of them were running 600 to 650 square feet.”

For assessing buildings, engineers examined each educational space in the context of current Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) guidelines for new school building construction, which gives an idea of current best practices, Poinelli explained. At the Cushman School, every classroom on the first floor alone, along with administration offices, were found to be at least 20 percent smaller than those guidelines.

The consultants offered two options to alleviate issues. The first option would shutter the Cushman School and turn Quinn into a centralized early childhood education facility. A moderate-level renovation would be needed throughout the building, and redistricting of Potter and DeMello would be necessary. It’s estimated to cost between $54-$56 million.

A second option would also close the Cushman School, but would relocate pre-kindergarten classes to Quinn, DeMello, and Potter, which already has a pre-kindergarten program that began this year. Quinn would require a moderate renovation, and DeMello and Potter would need small classroom additions. The cost is estimated at $81-$86 million.

School Committee members and district officials were surprised by both the cost of the options presented, and the decision to prioritize elementary school issues over Dartmouth Middle School. In previous meetings, members raised concerns with the school as a $5.8 million roof replacement project is planned. The report recommended a comprehensive renovation at a later date.

School Committee Chair Shannon Jenkins questioned voters’ willingness to approve tax increases, noting the original failed vote to fix up the police station.

“I’m just concerned that this is not what we can do, and we need to figure out a way to address the issues that we have, but not at this price tag,” Jenkins said. “It would be nice to have 21st century learning environments at all of our schools. I just don’t think we’re going to get there.”

Jenkins suggested coming up with plans that the district can get approved instead.

Member Christopher Oliver agreed that the committee cannot go forward with the options presented, and suggested meeting with other town boards for suggestions.

School Business Administrator James Kiely noted the point of the report was to get the committee to think about the big picture and long-term needs, and cautioned that the current method of maintaining school buildings with frequent smaller projects is not feasible. He noted even he was surprised by the focus on elementary schools instead of the middle school.

“In terms of the middle school, that was the hardest pill for me to swallow,” Kiely said. “These two gentlemen, when they first presented their findings and told me it wasn’t the middle school that would be the target, it took me a while to come around to that, but I think it’s right.”

He added that the report found no overcrowding at the middle school and no structural issues, which would mean funding requests to the school building authority  for a major renovation would be on a lower priority.

A full draft of the master plan should be completed in about eight weeks. In the meantime, the School Committee decided to form a working session to discuss the plan and find other options to move forward.

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