About 100 Needham residents—some wearing green-and-white T-shirts reading “Save Cricket Field”—showed up to the School Committee meeting Tuesday evening to hear about options for Needham Public Schools’ and elementary schools, including one that would build a new Hillside school on .
Despite being told that it was not the time for public comment, residents made it clear they were not happy with the proposal—which is one of about three main options being considered in what School Committee chairwoman Heidi Black called “the very, very, very early stage” of the planning process. Several people called out or shouted unanswered questions throughout the presentation by architecture firm Dore & Whittier, which was hired to conduct a prefeasibility study on the two schools.
But Black said it was not the time for public comment and told the architects to carry on with their presentation despite the buzz from the audience.
“It is School Committee policy that we do not accept public comment at the beginning of a meeting on any item that’s on our agenda. We also do not accept comment or interact with the audience during our regularly scheduled meetings,” Black told Patch after the meeting. “When we hold a public hearing, that’s what the meeting is for. So for people that have never attended a School Committee meeting before or perhaps are not familiar with the policies of the School Committee, I can understand why their expectations might have been different."
Black said that the district was at least a year away from “making any kind of choice” related to the renovation or construction of new buildings to address . The prefeasibility study will help officials craft a statement of intent, or SOI, to submit to the Massachusetts School Building Authority this fall, which if accepted would only begin the process of working with the MSBA to come up with a plan to address school building needs.
The School Committee has been working with Dore & Whittier on the study since September 2011 and has had regular updates at several points since then, including a public meeting held at in early May.
But those who gathered Tuesday evening concerned about one option in particular said that even if the process had been transparent, there were many who had no idea that the use of Cricket Field was on the table.
“We feel like this was very quietly put forward. In fact, we only just learned of it this last Thursday,” said Sue Owen, a Hillside Avenue resident. “Clearly, it’s more than a possibility. It’s one of the three final options [presented by the architects], and it seems to me that they are considering it more than the other options because it’s the least costly to attempt."
Owen and her neighbors met up over the weekend to discuss strategy, designing T-shirts, creating a website, putting up signs and canvassing the neighborhood with flyers.
“We feel like this is the start of a long process to voice our opposition,” Owen said. “There was very little option for us to ask any questions or to find out if there had been any studies done on the impact on our community. I feel like we should have known about it. […] The fact that, of the 100 people we canvassed, none of them knew about it, that seems to indicate to me that whether or not they consider this a transparent process, the people that are going to be very highly impacted, none of them were aware of it.”
Possible solutions for Hillside and Mitchell
So what are the other options?
Some ideas have already been taken off the table because they were deemed not to fit in with district goals or inappropriate for other reasons, leaving three main options.
These possibilities may seem a bit confusing when they are sub-sectioned with titles such as “1.A.b” and “1.B.a” in Dore & Whittier’s report—which is available on the school website and in the School Committee’s June 5 agenda packet. But the report essentially suggests the district do one of the following:
- Make additions or renovations to Hillside and Mitchell schools separately on each existing site, with enrollment balanced equally between the two buildings—an estimated 503 students at Mitchell and 487 students at Hillside (this option is referred to in the report as 1A.1)
- Build two new, separate schools on each existing site (referred to as 1A.2a, b and c, depending on how students are housed during construction)
- Build new or add to/renovate Mitchell on its existing site and build a new Hillside school on Cricket Field (1A.3)
- Make additions or renovations to Hillside and Mitchell schools separately on each existing site and move more students to Mitchell—resulting in an estimated 612 students at Mitchell and 378 at Hillside (1B.1)
- Build two new, separate schools on each existing site (referred to as 1B.2a and 1B.2b, depending on how students are housed during construction)
- Build a new sixth grade school at , reclaim High Rock for elementary school use and build new or renovate the existing elementary school at the Mitchell site and do a complete redistricting (3A and 3A.1)
The Dore & Whittier prefeasibility study is a follow-up to a review of the existing conditions on both the Hillside and Mitchell sites that was completed last June by the same firm. The latest report looks at options for addressing the needs at these two schools within a list of goals set by the School Committee.
These goals include: Having elementary schools with no more than 400 to 500 students each; having “neighborhood-based schools” that reduce transportation costs and create a sense of community and ownership; allowing the district to expand to a full-day kindergarten model; minimal redistricting; and avoiding costly and non-reimbursable features such as the need to purchase modular classrooms to house students during construction.
Why is Cricket on the table?
The Hillside property comes with it several issues, including limited area for development because of wetlands, soil remediation and difficult access to the site.
“Cricket is essentially within the Hillside neighborhood,” said Don Walter, a partner with Dore & Whittier. “A new building can be designed and constructed [on that site] to precisely meet the needs of the Hillside population.”
As one of the options, the architects proposed that a two-story school housing about 487 students be built on the Cricket Field site, tucked against the hill on the south side of the property, with parking, a bus loop and drop-off located on the middle and eastern side, near Sunnyside Road and Hillside Avenue. The northern and western sides of the property would be used for new fields. Also under this option, the old Hillside property would be used to build additional playing fields.
In an early cost estimate of the various options, the Cricket Field option is one of the few listed for under $80 million for both schools combined—in part because it would allow the district to house students in existing schools while construction was underway rather than purchase modular classrooms.
Neighbors against use of Cricket Field
Though they did not have a chance to speak during the meeting, the crowd that showed up Tuesday talked about their concerns before and afterward, milling in the hallway for quite a while after the discussion.
Steve Owen was collecting signatures on a petition against the use of Cricket Field outside , where the meeting was held.
“We feel that the park is quite a treasure, and we want to preserve it,” he said.
Cricket Field has undergone recent renovations, such as irrigation on two of the fields, and is used regularly by soccer and lacrosse teams as well as neighbors, Owen said.
“The other two proposals involved improving and/or rebuilding the two schools on their existing sites, which has been done in the past. It was just done with Eliot, so we have an elementary school where this just happened, less than a mile from Cricket Field,” he said.
Inside, Steve’s wife Sue talked about similar issues.
“We feel like the traffic and safety issues to our neighborhood would be extreme and that it would be a huge burden to us,” she said. “We’re also having in the Needham Heights area, just down the street from us, so that would be three large buildings right in one area.”
A chance to speak
Several School Committee members said they appreciated the fact that so many turned out for the meeting and said it was important for people to be involved in the process.
“We certainly understand that this is an issue people feel passionate about, and we’re glad there’s that level of interest,” Black said. “What we need to be clear about is that we’re at the very, very, very beginning of a very long process where options will be discussed—options that might not be evident right now. We need to partner with the state in order for us to move forward in this process.
"This is an issue that affects all of our children, all of our citizens. We want to work together with other boards in town to come to the best decision for the children of the town of Needham.”