Wareham School Committee closes Minot Forest Elementary

Apr 28, 2018

Minot Forest Elementary School will close this fall.

School Committee members voted 4-1 on April 27 to shutter the nearly 50-year-old building, which is beset with structural problems. Upgrades are required for security, electrical wiring and fire safety. Additional classroom space, new windows, boilers, floors and ceilings are needed as well.

Committee members said the unpopular decision was a necessity considering budget woes.

“I’m truly not in favor of this,” said committee member Rebekah Pratt. “If our options are to close a very old, aging and antiquated school to save jobs, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

In addition to closing Minot Forest, nearly 30 positions will be cut as a cost-saving measure. The measures are needed to close the gap between what school officials said is needed to keep pace with rising costs, such as healthcare and salary increases, and what the town could afford to fund. The school district’s $29 million budget was approved at Town Meeting on April 23.

By closing Minot Forest roughly 200 students will be moved to Decas Elementary where some will be housed in portable classrooms outside the main building.

Committee member Mary Morgan, who voted against closing Minot Forest, said that wasn’t a viable long-term option.

“That’s huge concern for me,” said Morgan. “It’s not going to be a good learning environment.”

It’s possible a new school will be built where Minot Forest is currently located. Officials are now working through the school construction process with the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Members of the School Committee-appointed School Building Committee are in favor of a three-story, $86 million building with space for 1,020 students to replace Minot Forest. Officials will submit a design option to the state for approval on June 27. If that plan is approved, officials will spend the next year further developing the design. Construction could begin as soon as fall of 2019 and take two years.

Plans call for completing a design in time for voters to consider a debt exclusion at the October 2018 Town Meeting. If approved, the issue would go before local voters for final approval during the state's Nov. 6 election as a ballot question. The debt exclusion would raise taxes on residents to pay for the project for the life of the debt.

Morgan said if voters don’t approve the new school students may be stuck in the portable classrooms longer than anticipated.

“We’re just putting a band-aid on things,” said Morgan. “And I think we’re going to be stuck with that band-aid.”

Following the vote, members also unanimously approved new grade realignments for Decas Elementary, the middle school and the high school.

Decas will house pre-kindergarten through second grade, the middle school third through seventh grade and eighth through twelfth grades at the high school.

In the months leading up to the vote, parents expressed concern about putting third and seventh grade students in the same building.

Officials said all configuration options were explored, including one that would have placed seventh grade students at the high school. Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood said because of the building’s design, it would be impossible to give the younger students their own wing away from older students. That option is available for third grade students who will be attending the middle school.

Committee member Rebekah Pratt said the move may be a positive one for the district.

“I think the older kids will be more of role model than we anticipated,” said Pratt.

The committee had originally voted on April 23 to close the school, but because that wasn’t listed on the meeting’s agenda, committee member Michael Flaherty reached out to state officials about a possible open meeting law violation.

Flaherty noted he wasn’t filing a formal complaint, but was seeking guidance. The state's open meeting law governs what officials may and may not discuss in open session and sets regulations for the posting of meetings. In a response, Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush said his office couldn’t weigh in on a potential violation, but urged Flaherty to err on the side of caution.

“As a best practice our office strongly encourages a public body to postpone any discussion of controversial topics or topics that garner public interest until they can be properly listed on a meeting notice,” Rush wrote.