I write to express my enthusiastic support on March 17 for a “yes” vote to keep all seven Wellesley elementary schools. I think it’s useful to dispel some of the myths used to support the current plan to close one of the Hardy or Upham schools and build a much larger extremely expensive Hunnewell as well as another large school at a combined price tag of $130 million.
Myth 1: The administration’s “educational program” dictates that Wellesley’s elementary students attend 19 section elementary schools that have separate STEM rooms, separate “cafetoria,” separate gym spaces as well as community breakout spaces. This Educational Program apparently only applies to Hunnewell and Upham. As recently as 2016, our most crowded school, Schofield, was renovated (along with the much less dilapidated Fiske) as part of a two school $18 million renovation project. Despite the renovation, Schofield continues to have modular classrooms, no air conditioning in the main building, no breakout spaces, and a combined multi-purpose room used as a gym and cafetorium. Schofield is the one school that lies on a plot that is as inviting as any in Wellesley for a larger more modern building, yet repairs were deemed enough. Voters are told that the things “required” at Hunnewell are necessary for the “educational program” of our administration — yet as recently as 2016 they clearly were not required for Schofield.
Myth 2: We will lose MSBA (Massachusetts School Building Authority) funding if we don’t proceed with the current plan for two new large schools. This is false. The MSBA has offered to contribute $11 million in funds to build a new Upham at its current 240 student enrollment capacity. The only entities pushing large consolidated schools are the School Committee and superintendent.
Myth 3: The Hunnewell district once had 400 students, therefore it might reach this enrollment level again. This is false. Some 25 years ago, Hunnewell held 360 students at its peak enrollment. In 2003, the new Sprague opened and a large section of Hunnewell’s student population moved to Sprague. Since then, Hunnewell’s enrollment has trended down to only around 250 students. Conversely, the Hardy, Schofield and Fiske districts will likely see upticks in enrollment as large multifamily housing developments move forward.
Myth 4: Keeping all three elementary schools is more expensive than building two large new schools. This is the School Committee and superintendent’s primary argument. It is false. First, as noted above, the Schofield building was evaluated as having almost identical deficiencies to Hunnewell, yet Schofield was renovated for only $10 million. The School Building Committee has only priced out the most expensive possible options for two new schools. We can build new, smaller, leaner schools and keep all three schools for well under the $130 million cost of two large college-like elementary schools.
Myth 5: You can’t predict diversity. At a recent forum on redistricting, our superintendent claimed we can’t predict diversity numbers. Why was he asked about diversity? Currently, Hunnewell, Bates and Upham are, by far, our least racially diverse districts. Under the current plan, the two most expensive elementary schools in Massachusetts will serve our least diverse districts. If Upham is chosen as the other new school, the racially diverse Hardy district will be folded into Bates and Sprague, further solidifying Hunnewell and Upham as the least diverse districts by far. This sends the wrong message about our town.
Myth 6: Larger schools are better for children. This is false. Look no further than the performance of our smallest schools. Hardy, Hunnewell and Upham routinely out-perform most schools in the area in academic competitions and standardized testing. Their students certainly do not underperform their peers at our town’s larger schools. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that young children do best in small schools where they feel safe and welcome. Further, if our town proceeds to spend over $130 million on two large buildings, the Board of Selectmen and concerned taxpayers will continue to apply downward pressure on the school district’s operating budget. This is already happening — the prospect of large capital expenditures and its effect on the school budget are mentioned routinely at committee meetings and was brought up at Town Meeting last year. We face a clear choice: we can have large, expensive buildings or we can have a robust operating budget for teachers, programs and school supplies but we can’t have both. The buildings will at most benefit a fraction of the town. The school budget affects everyone.
Myth 7: The new schools will make Wellesley a greener town. There is no evidence or study showing to support this. The new buildings will be billed as “net zero ready” (not net zero). However, the construction process will involve blasting two stories of forested granite ledge at the Upham site and the complete demolition of the old buildings. Further, the proposed Hunnewell will increase traffic and idling at the already congested site in the center of town at rush hour.
Please join me in voting “yes” to keep our successful seven neighborhood schools on March 17.
Ethan Davis is Town Meeting member in Precinct D and a founding member of the all-volunteer committee for Friends of the HHU Ballot Question/YES for 7 campaign. His children are future WPS students. He lives on Woodlawn Avenue.