Decision on closing Wareham's Minot Forest Elementary expected April 11
School Committee members delayed a decision on Wednesday whether or not to close Minot Forest Elementary School. Committee members are scheduled to vote on the matter at their next meeting, set for April 11 at 7 p.m. in the Wareham Middle School auditorium.
At that time, a final budget will also be voted on bringing staff cuts, transportation fees and changes in school leadership positions to close a $2 million shortfall next fiscal year.
Closing the school will result in significant savings and result in slightly fewer staff reductions, officials said. Committee members are expected to recommend a $28.8 million budget. That figure must be finalized by voters at the April 23 Town Meeting.
The proposed budget is up 1.5 percent from last year. Rising salary and healthcare obligations are outstripping the school district’s ability to maintain services, said officials. The most significant increase is driven by contractual salary raises, said the school district’s Business Manager Michael MacMillan. School officials originally recommended a $30 million budget. However, town officials could only allocate roughly $28 million. That’s because municipal revenues aren’t keeping pace with increased expenses.
A budget of slightly more than $30 million would have kept current programs and staff in place. School officials have weighed cuts and explored savings associated with closing Minot Forest Elementary the past few months. If Minot Forest Elementary is closed, 30 teaching positions and two administrative positions will likely be lost, said MacMillan. If the School Committee votes to keep Minot Forest Elementary open, a total of 34 positions may be cut. He noted because the budget isn't finalized those numbers are estimates.
On Feb. 28, more than 100 residents, educators, parents and students decried the possibility of closing the school. To accommodate students, portable classrooms will be placed at Decas Elementary. Those will be paid for with town funds and not impact the district’s budget. This new configuration would see Decas Elementary with approximately 800 students attending kindergarten through third grade.
Wareham Middle School would house fourth through seventh grade students, with approximately 767 pupils attending. Recess would be held in the school’s fields, since there are no playgrounds at the middle school. Eighth graders would move to Wareham High School. Preschool students would also be moved to Wareham High School in a wing dedicated solely for them. Closing Minot Forest Elementary will save $1 million, said MacMillan.
If approved, officials are hopeful the move will be temporary. The School Building Committee, made up of members appointed by the School Committee, is working on a preliminary design proposal for a new, combined elementary school. Officials plan to build a new school at Minot Forest Elementary’s current location for a cost of $86 million. The new school would accommodate approximately 1,020 students from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. The new school has several hurdles, including approval from town voters who must agree to fund construction. The earliest construction could start is spring 2019 with an estimated timeline of two years, according to officials.
Committee member Mary Morgan asked what would happen to students if voters did not approve funds for a new school. MacMillan said because the school is in such poor condition something must be done whether a new school is built or not.
“Minot Forest needs significant work,” he said. “If it doesn’t pass we need to look at alternative options to house those students.”
He said the estimated cost of moving students out of Minot Forest Elementary is $50,000.
Rising transportation costs prompted officials to propose new fees under the budget. While the town pays for the purchase of new vehicles and their maintenance, the School Department's costs for transportation are skyrocketing due to an increase in driver salaries, increased costs of paying contract services for students who live out of district and a greater number of routes.
Students who wish to travel on school buses would have to pay, with a few exceptions. Free transportation would still be provided for students from kindergarten to sixth grade who live more than two miles from the school. The fee would be charged for those younger students who live within two miles of the school and to all students in grades seven to 12. There would be a reduction in cost for students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.
Changes to leadership positions in the district could help save money as well, MacMillan said. Currently, the School Department relies heavily on assistant principals who are supported by deans and department chairs.
The proposed solution is to remove assistant principals and add in deans and additional department chairs to provide support. Deans teach classes half-time and department chairs are also involved in teaching classes. These changes to leadership would save approximately $252,000, he said.
Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood said with a monumental choice before officials additional time was needed to reach a decision regarding Minot Forest Elementary.
“It certainly is a long, drawn out budget season and it’s not finished,” said Shaver-Hood. “We are not happy at all that we have to consider closing a school building earlier than we would like to.”