WESTFIELD – At a press conference on Tuesday, Mayor Brian P. Sullivan, Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski and Business Manager Ronald Rix said they are going to undertake an in-depth study to determine whether the proposed 600 student elementary school at the Ashley Street site is still necessary, or whether a smaller 400-student school building would be sufficient.
“When you pull the fifth grade out, do you still need a 600 student school there,” asked Czaporowski. He said the district is initiating a study on long term enrollment. The last study, which predated the elementary school building project, was done ten years ago and has expired. ‘The question has to be asked,” he said.
Mayor Sullivan said the School Committee made some “pretty tough decisions” over the last year, specifically to pull the fifth grade out of the elementary schools, and to bring Russell School students back to Westfield.
The redistricting, which will go into effect in the school year beginning September 2018, will include six K-4 elementary schools, one 5-6 intermediate school, and one 7-8 middle school. Rix said there will be a cost savings in the new plan, as the district will go from seven elementary schools to six. Czaporowski said there will be educational benefits, also.
With the new plan, a new elementary school would also be K-4, and would further consolidate the district into five elementary schools. “Here’s where we are, because we made a move to pull the fifth grade out,” Sullivan said.
All three said that the Supreme Judicial Court’s anticipated ruling on the appeal of Article 97 protection of the Cross Street playground was not a factor in their decision to do the study. The case centers on whether the 1.37 acres of the playground which would be taken for the school is Article 97 protected land.
“We still feel the Ashley Street neighborhood is the location for the new school,” Sullivan said. He said 90% of the students would walk to the school, which is in a central location in a populated part of the city.
Whether a smaller 400-student school building on the site would eliminate the need to take over 1.37 acres of the Cross Street playground, the subject of the suit and appeal, is not yet known, and won’t be until the study is completed.
“I do know that Mayor Sullivan discussed several possibilities with the MSBA back in late 2015. The School Committee has custody of much larger parcels than the one on Cross St. Why aren’t those properties being discussed for the location of a school? Those lands are not protected and do not need to be replaced with make-up recreational land, as the Cross St. Playground needs to be replaced,” commented Thomas Smith, plaintiff in the Cross St. lawsuit.
Another unknown is whether the Massachusetts School Building Association (MSBA) would approve the amended plan, or whether the city would have to start over from the beginning in the approval process. ”They’ve been supportive of us through all of this. They’re willing to stay on board,” Sullivan said, adding, “If we have to start over, it must be the right move at the right time.”
The urgency in building a new elementary school is in order to close Abner Gibbs, which was built in 1898 and Fort Meadow pre-school, built in 1911, and move the pre-school to Franklin Avenue. Rix said it goes back to equity. Abner Gibbs is inaccessible to the handicap. Rix said they also just pulled out the boiler in the building, and have been flex sealing the roof. The school also does not have the power to supply the newer technologies that other schools have. Czaporowski said the school also has a “cafegymnatorium,” in which lunch, sports and performances all take place.
However, Sullivan said the families that go to Abner Gibbs still love the school. “Those students don’t know anything else,” he said.
The opportunities of building a 400-student school on the Ashley Street site would lie in efficiency. Rix said taxpayers’ dollars wouldn’t be wasted in building a larger school than is needed, and combining two elementary schools into one would save the city $1.1 million dollars.
The study will begin by looking at old data. Currently, Westfield Public Schools has 240 more total students than was predicted in the old study. This year’s student population, which was anticipated to be down by 100 over last year, is only down by half that number, Czaporowski said, although the official census won’t be taken until October 1.
“It seems like common sense to me that we are looking at this,” Czaporowski said.