A better school plan

Hello Acton!

It has been a long time since I’ve written an article for Acton Forum. I’ve been keeping busy with my new Boston Globe media criticism project (see www.PublicEditorMA.com) as well as engaging in some very fun hobbies as time allows. I have stepped back from working on local issues ever since the School Committee’s disastrous sacking of the former Superintendent. Dealing with some of our local elected School Committee members who purposely deceived the public, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover up their incompetence and deception, and then not resigning from their public posts when their deeds were uncovered and made public soured me on staying involved.

But I am still around and went to the Special Town Meeting on the sewer issue, with the next Special Town Meeting coming up this Tuesday night, December 10. This has several important issues, including more on sewers, a North Acton Fire Station, a proposal to bond the vocational school building project, and our own "twin school" proposal to replace two Acton elementary schools, Douglas and Gates. (The Town Meeting warrant is here: https://www.acton-ma.gov/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/12633

The school building issue is one which I was following when the Superintendent issue got in the way. But it is an important (and needed) project and I don't think the plan as proposed is very good. It has several faulty assumptions which I will detail below. Let me state at the outset that my concerns about this project have remained the same since I was involved a few years ago, and those concerns were transmitted at the time to School Committee members at a meeting with Charlie Kadlec, myself, and members of the School administration and School Committee. Do not let the school officials pretend that this is a last-minute concern that is being sprung just before Town Meeting.

Yesterday, Acton Forum published an article from a parent who has been involved in school issues and who expressed concerns about locating a second elementary school where it is now, and this question got me thinking. I used to attend some of the school building forums back when Dr. Brand was in charge, and I can’t recall any discussion about location, other than the three present sites (Gates, Douglas, and Conant.) When the article pointed out that we need to build a new fire station in North Acton to serve that side of town, justified by new growth and lots of new residents, it made sense that we should also consider putting our new school there. It was a brilliant point and one I had not considered. Here is a link to that article: www.actonforum.com/story/concerns-regarding-school-building-project

Spreading out our communities’ resources makes sense on many levels. There are huge advantages in cost savings if we can move to a neighborhood elementary school model. What we pay for busing is astronomical. There are also health and environmental benefits to having schools closer to students. Home buyers will have more choices if they want to be close to an elementary school. And with the addition of the Blanchard School in Boxborough, we effectively have three schools now all close to West Acton. Blanchard’s inclusion in the School District makes it less compelling to build a twin school in West Acton.

One good reason for making this project so large is that we get about 33% of it funded by the state. A larger project means more funding. But when you bond a project over 30 years, even at low interest rates, the cost of interest is significant. I did a “back of the envelope” calculation which shows that splitting the project into two pieces, and putting one at Gates (or Douglas), and one in North Acton, can make sense. And that is what I want to show here. I also believe that there is a good chance that if we split the schools into two projects, we may never need to build the second school. And finally, by closing down one of our six elementary schools, whether temporarily during construction or permanently because we don't need the capacity, the cost of the new building's bond payments is likely to be fully covered, in round numbers, by the operating cost savings. If enrollment increases such that we need the sixth school, we would have saved money on interest and operating costs until that school is built and staffed. That could cover 10 years of bond payments on a new school. And when a sixth school is built, we would get the "second half" of the state's aid, thus making up for not taking it now, up front, so to speak.

One way you save money is by hedging your bets. Having six elementary schools is not a given going forward 30 or 40 years. Populations are changing, projections can be wrong, parents can have more or fewer children, on average. Right now, based on my somewhat dated knowledge of enrollment, we are in a lull. We do not need six elementary schools, we only need five. And my "back of the envelope" calculations show this (see below).

To build a sixth, we can afford to wait. Waiting means we won’t build schools we don’t need, and it also saves a lot in compounded interest. Projections for higher enrollment are ten years into the future and may not come to pass. In fact, just a few years ago, projections were for lower enrollment. Perhaps we should wait a few years and see if numbers firm up either way.

The reason we can wait is our elementary school buildings are currently under-utilized. We could currently close one elementary school and shift students to other schools and still be below our capacity. That is because we added a sixth school (Blanchard) that is only (roughly) two-thirds filled. There are about 200 spaces at Blanchard available if needed, based on their enrollment highs of 20 years ago. Likewise, Acton’s five elementary schools have significant space if things got tight. For example, Douglas currently has around 400 students and it used to have 500.

I did the research at the state's enrollment website. You have to hunt around for Blanchard and Acton Public, and then choose "students" and then go back to prior years. That is because the current info is just for the full district. So here is a link to 2010 for Acton Public (the five Acton elementary schools): http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/profiles/student.aspx?orgcode=00020000&orgtypecode=5&&fycode=2010.

To save you the time to look this up, here are the numbers I found of maximum enrollment, plus the year. I then added current enrollment numbers:

Douglas 515 (2001). (current: 405).
Gates 506 (2002). (current 376).
Conant 523 (1999). (current 449).
McCarthy-Towne 519 (2003). (current 520).
Merriam 628 (2010). (current 492).
Blanchard 640 (1999). (current 464).

All six, 3,331. (current 2,706).

(The McCarthy-Towne building shows just 519 maximum, but it is a "twin school" to Merriam so it perhaps could also hold 620, which would add 100 to the maximum enrollment, bringing it to 3,431.)

I am not saying that we should routinely or haphazardly fill each elementary school to bursting. I’m sure that 640 kids at Blanchard was seen as a hardship by staff. I’m sure that 500 kids at Douglas had “art on a cart” which is not ideal. But with six schools and much lower enrollment than in the past, we can temporarily get by with five schools while we build new schools and see how enrollment changes over time.

The current elementary school enrollment is 2,706. The maximum enrollment is 3,331. That is a difference of 625 students below "full capacity." The current Gates enrollment is 376, and none of the six schools currently has 625 students. So any of the schools could be closed and we would still be under the maximum number.

Here are my "back of the envelope" calculations. The current plan is to pay (round numbers) $120 million for the twin school, get $40 million from the state, bringing it down to $80 million. Boxborough would pay about $10m, leaving Acton with a $70m bond. A 30-year bond payment at 3% interest is $3.57 million per year. Over the 30 years, the total interest cost would be $37 million. (Note that this is almost as much as the total amount of state aid. This is important to note if we do not need to borrow to build a new school.)

If instead we built a single school now, we could see what happens with future student populations. So if we build a new school say for $80 million, the state would pay the same one-third, $24 million, it would leave $56 million. Boxborough would pay about $7 million, leaving Acton with $49 million.

Over 30 years, at 3% interest, we would pay $2.5 million per year and total interest would be $26 million. But would we have to bond and increase taxes to pay for this, or could we pay for it out of our budget?

I believe we could afford this within the current budget. Here is how:

For the next five or ten years, we would operate with five elementary schools, rather than six. The savings in operating costs would probably pay the annual cost of the bond for a smaller project. So the cost of the bond payment and interest would be effectively zero, or close to it. That is because we would remove the overhead of one building, which would reduce maintenance costs, heating, repairs, administration costs (staff in the principal’s office), landscaping, and busing.

Now this is a guess, but it is worth studying. Let's say we can't save $2.5 million by closing a school, we can only save half that, or $1.25 million. This would mean Acton taxpayers would have to pay just $1.25 million per year while we operate with five elementary schools instead of six, and that extra cost would be much less than the projected amount of the bond payment for a new “twin school.” Again, in round numbers, this would be two-thirds less of a tax increase, or around $200 per average single-family household instead of $500. That would save $9,000 over the 30-year life of the loan for each household.

Now, if taxpayers don't want to do this, they can decide to borrow the money and increase their taxes. But that doesn't mean we can't keep all six buildings and start building a new elementary school now in North Acton. I would prefer we close one building and redistribute the kids, but if that is unthinkable, we take out the bond and we make lower payments for five or ten years while we build a new building and then transfer one of the administrations into the new building. We then close that unused building, keep paying the bond, and wait and see. If enrollment goes up and it is determined that five buildings are not sufficient, we build number six. But waiting ten years to do so saves money, partly because the need for the sixth building is not clear. We don't need it now and we may not need it in 10 years. Why pay for and build it now when we can wait and see?

What this would save is about $1 million in bond payments per year. And then, in ten years, we can apply for state assistance on the sixth elementary school building. This is slightly less efficient, true, but we would save a lot in interest and we hedge our bets about future enrollment. Plus, we get the added benefit of spreading out our elementary schools.

I have asked a few questions to the school administration and will add an update to this article if I hear back before Town Meeting with information that is pertinent. Otherwise, see you Tuesday night!

(A very good "loan calculator" if you want to run your own numbers is here: https://www.calculator.net/loan-calculator.html)

UPDATE FROM THE AB SCHOOL DISTRICT 1. The Superintendent sent me a document showing the expected borrowing costs. It shows a loan of $78 million, interest rate at 3% (which he said was likely to be conservative), and an "Acton share" payment of $3.4 million per year. See the chart here: SC_debt_twinschool.pdf

2. As to building capacity, the Superintendent shared a graphic done by previous consultants D & W architects which estimated building capacity based on an unknown formula. They are significantly lower than most current enrollments. The graphic is here: building_capacity_DW_architects.png

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Welcome back Allen.

First and foremost I have never read why we have to replace buildings rather than refurbish! Advanced age does not mean no longer of value.

Second: the vote in favor of the new schools is a done deal. Third: Acton town meetings have been taken away from the average town citizen and reduced to a party run by elected and biased town officials. (And where in heck did we find the new moderator? I've never heard a speaker with as limited public speaking ability!

Former High School

The former high school (much older than Gates, Douglas and Conant) looks nowhere near it's end of life after refurbishment by a developer. How did D&W arrive at the fact that refurbishment of the elementary schools would only last 10 years?

Replace Douglas or Gates now, then build sixth school

As I’ve been further thinking of the timing, it makes sense to replace Gates now, close Douglas, shifting some students to Gates and the rest elsewhere. Build the new single-elementary school on the Gates property (which will easily fit, as that is the proposed site of the twin school) with Gates still standing and in use. (If that is terribly cumbersome, move all students to Douglas instead, close and tear down Gates, then build the new single elementary school on the Gates property.)

When done, we have a brand new school at Gates, Douglas is torn down, and we watch enrollment. If we need a sixth school, we have plenty of time to buy the land in North Acton and develop a building plan. It will be much simpler and cheaper to design another small satellite elementary school and there are probably plenty of spots available.

One more point. If projections dictate that a slightly larger new Gates school will likely mean we can stick with five elementary schools, we can design for that now.


Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.