At its June 23 meeting, the Westwood School Committee unanimously adopted a plan to close the Sheehan and Deerfield Elementary Schools, clear the woods behind the Hanlon School, and construct a new, $45 million 550-student elementary school. Upon completion of the new school, the Hanlon would be razed and replaced with a parking lot.
The choice is part of an overall plan to address the capital needs of the school district and to deal with the reality of declining enrollments and buildings constructed in the 1950s that require basic maintenance and upgrades that will cost at least $60 million just to maintain the status quo. No immediate actions will be taken; the vote is the beginning of a community process that will take years to complete. According to the meeting notes, "There is a tremendous amount of vetting that needs to be done and this is truly a community decision."
Click this link to read the 325-page report
The report is a comprehensive and thorough analysis of the current state of facilities and a demographic analysis projecting enrollment patterns into the next decade. The continuing migration/exodus of graduating seniors overwhelms the in-migration of new families, resulting in a long-term demographic trend of declining enrollments across all districts. Total enrollment is forecasted to decrease by 153 students, or -4.8%, between 2014-15 and 2019-20. Total enrollment will decline by 159 students, or -5.2%, from 2019-20 to 2024-25. According to the report,
Westwood Public Schools will continue to experience significant in-migration (movement of new young families into the district) over the next 10 years. However, the size and age structure of the pool of potential in-migrants will change and the effects of the in-migration of families on population growth will be greatly offset by the continued steady growing out- migration of young adults as graduating seniors continue to leave the district.
The impact of the changing demographics on individual schools can be seen on pages 79-80 of the report. Over the next ten years, enrollment at the Sheehan will decrease from 373 to 292; the Deerfield will decrease from 247 to 223; Downey is expected to lose 45 students. In 2025, the Downey will be smaller than Hanlon is today.
Declining enrollments do not mean our elementary schools will become ghost towns overnight. But the capital needs of the existing buildings mean that maintaining and providing the same level of service is going to become much more expensive per student. The study evaluated the physical infrastructure at each school, and while our elementary schools are in generally good shape, they are nearing the end of their useful lives and lack handicapped accessibility requirements. Increasingly, basic maintenance will become more and more expensive. The study presents an options grid on page 17 which shows how to simply maintain the status quo will cost over $60 million. The option C-1e adopted by the School Committee, including renovations to the remaining schools would cost $79 million.
Read the report. My personal opinion is that bussing kids from Grove Street and Burgess--and the likely reality of many parents driving their kids across town every day--will have a severe impact on traffic. Tripling the size of the Hanlon will be a dramatic change to the community--while it may have the positive impact of bringing the town closer together, it will be a shock to our neighborhood, not to mention the end, or at least relocation of the incredibly strong Sheehan community. I have less personal knowledge of the Deerfield, but I know one of the greatest strengths of our community is how personal our schools are. Creating a large combined school is a big change.
This decision and this report should provoke constructive discussion. Superintendent John Antonucci was happy to provide the report to me and offered to print a copy; I believe the people who have spent many hours thinking about these issues have the best interests of our community at heart. I do not believe anyone is trying to hide anything or rush the process. I hope sharing the report will inform and make for a productive discussion over the coming months and years as we decide what to do.