A New School for Newton in Upper Falls
It is safe to say that the more complicated a situation is, the more likely that a quick, conventional or superficially pleasing approach will lead, in the long-term, to costly error and regret. This is particularly true for educational planning and school outlays. The Newton school closings of thirty-some years ago led to current overcrowding, large operating expenses, and general dissatisfaction on the part of parents and taxpayers in general. The current conventional “wisdom” is to apply to that decades-old wound yet another “BandAid” , satisfying to some but, at best, kicking the problem down the road for another few years; in fact, putting off a comprehensive plan will make a real cure even more difficult and expensive when it must, at last, be applied.
For decades Newton had a national reputation for educational excellence. Part of this was due to its curriculum, but also a major factor was its system of community schools. An old map of school districts would show a regular kind of “tiling” of districts, with the school at or near the center, and with major thoroughfares forming some of the natural boundaries. Major school closings – and the short-sighted sale of the underlying land – disrupted this balance and led to shortage of space.
There is a classroom crunch throughout Newton which is most critical on the “south (of Rte. 9) side” of the city. So-called “buffer zones” of unstable and often unpredictable school assignment, as well as modular classroom and expensive and unpopular busing, have been cobbled together to manage the problem from year to year. However, the actual and projected influx of new families with young children ensures that the situation will only get worse.
Recently, a city-wide referendum allocated several million dollars to study the feasibility of expanding one south side school, Zervas, to help alleviate the space shortfall. Figures for the eventual expense of expansion are in the $40 million range (see Newton’s 2014-2018 Capital Improvement Plan). It must be emphasized that this feasibility study includes the very real possibility – which will be argued below – that Zervas be only cosmetically redone, and that the actual solution be construction of classroom space somewhere else.
The main problem with Zervas is its site: mostly wetlands, and where there is no wetland there is housing. By state law, wetlands cannot be taken for construction. The current school, with added modular classrooms, occupies pretty much all the land available without eliminating its already small play area. Thus, it is impossible to expand horizontally. Furthermore, it is unclear whether it is feasible to expand vertically because of the nature of the underlying soil: it’s not called wetlands for nothing. Adding a second story in such a situation, even if possible, would be an expensive proposition, tantamount to building a new school, yet gaining at most a single floor of rooms above what already exists. There is very little “bang for the buck” in a major rebuilding of Zervas. Finally, there are the issues of traffic and parking – already problems within the current configuration.
The Zervas school should be repaired as necessary, and is certainly worthwhile as a small community school; however, it doesn’t have the potential of solving the major overcrowding problems facing the city. Using the $40 million from the override to rebuild Zervas would be yet another quick but bad decision.
Countryside, along with Memorial-Spaulding, is another school sharing a growing school age population in the overcrowded south side of the city. Like Zervas, Countryside is also built on, and surrounded by, wetlands, and so cannot be expanded by taking these lands. Like Zervas, modular classrooms have been added to it. The long-term capital projection for Newton includes about $23 million dollars (fiscal 2027) for renovations to Countryside, including modular classrooms to expand its capacity. Combined with the projected money for Zervas, this amounts to more than $60 million potentially committed to schools limited by wetlands.
It simply does not make financial sense to spend money equivalent to building a new school while only getting the equivalent of half a school in new classroom space.
It is clear that we need to reconsider putting a lot of money into schools which cannot fix the city’s overcrowding problems. $60 million dollars will go a long way toward building what Newton really needs: a 16th school. This idea is now appealing to more and more parents and elected officials, of all political persuasions, since it can solve the classroom shortage problem in a financially efficient way. The question is: Where should such a school go?
One natural choice is Newton Upper Falls. This area of Newton is experiencing a rapid influx of young families with school-age children, while at the same time has no nearby school; in fact, the entire village is one big buffer zone, with its students currently being bused, at great expense (probably about $140,000 per year), to at least three different schools: Countryside, Zervas and Angier. It is the only village whose kids are bused to so many different schools. Its location is such that a new school in Upper Falls would take the pressure off not only the three schools it currently feeds, but also, indirectly, Memorial-Spaulding and Bowen, and even the northside schools Peirce, Williams, Burr, Franklin and Horace-Mann. For example, removing Upper Falls children from Countryside would free up space in that school for Memorial Spaulding students. Similarly, removing Upper Falls children from Angier would enable that school to accommodate students from Williams (currently having to accommodate kids from the new Riverside apartments) and Peirce. Even more striking, a school in Upper Falls would allow students from the Avalon apartments to walk to school, safely and easily, along the new Greenway park – a great improvement over the current unsafe and long walk across Rte. 9, or the expensive bus trip.
It should be noted that the Long Range Facilities Master Plan (Vol. 1) for the City of Newton explicitly recommends that (a) all schools be neighborhood schools, and (b) Rte 9 be a natural elementary school boundary line. Unlike the current plan, or any plan involving major expansions in the capacity of Zervas, building a new school in Upper Falls complies with both of these conditions. Furthermore, an Upper Falls plan would also respect Needham St. – a crowded and difficult-to-cross auto route – as a natural boundary as well.
Finally, from a financial standpoint, not only would a new school in Upper Falls provide, for the same money, more classroom space than rebuilding Zervas and renovating Countryside, but the cost of its single principal would save money over hiring an additional three half-time assistant principals as is currently required for the Bowen, Countryside and Memorial-Spaulding schools.
Thus, it seems quite clear from financial and practical standpoints, a new school in Upper Falls would be preferable to rebuilding the problematic Zervas school or adding modulars to it and Countryside (or other schools). From an engineering/architectural or legal standpoint, building on the firm soil and rock of Upper Falls is preferable to dealing with schools on protected and unstable wetlands. The only question is: Where can we site a school in Upper Falls?
One obvious place is the large and inefficiently used parcel of land currently housing a DPW lot on Elliot Street:(Please click on images at the beginning of this blog. Thanks to Bruce Henderson for these graphics.)
The DPW lot is currently strewn with miscellaneous pieces of equipment and piles of material; parts of it are wooded and other parts are periodically used to dump (non-toxic) waste materials. Working with the EPA, the Board of Aldermen cleaned up this area in 2009 and, pending further study, it seems quite suitable for a new school.
The DPW area, though large, attractive and obvious, is not the only possible place for a school in Upper Falls. Another possibility is to use part of the Bobby Braceland park off Chestnut Street. This large park is currently the site of several athletic fields, a dog park, and tennis courts. Part of the “middle field” could house a school, and the remaining field could be used for a playground and public access; the dog park could also be eliminated and thrown into the mix. The large new linear park called “The Greenway” could be considered a trade for the area taken out of public use to house the school.
Thus, from the standpoints of effectiveness, cost and feasibility, building a new school for Newton in Upper Falls is a viable and superior long-term solution to the overcrowding and busing problems facing our city.