Stuck in the Middle (Schools)

Williams Middle School in Longmeadow

It seems like 2016 has been the year of the building project in Longmeadow. The DPW task force has made recommendations on a site and plans are quickly progressing on a proposal to build a new DPW building. The Senior Center project, which failed at Town Meeting, is now being reevaluated and new sites are being discussed. Of course, the million dollar question is with regard to our middle schools.

For the six years that I have served on the Longmeadow School Committee there has been an open question about what the Committee plans to do with regard to Williams and Glenbrook. Like many buildings in town, our middle schools are over 50 years old, they lack certain ADA accessibility, they lack adequate electrical service into the buildings — making it difficult to run computers. Our middle schools are in need of new roofs, new boilers, new windows, and fire suppression systems. They lack proper ventilation in classrooms and at Glenbrook, many of the classrooms are not fully enclosed — a relic of a failed pedagogy from the early 1960’s which presents real educational and facilities related challenges in 2016.

While most residents will understand the basic structural and facility related issues our middle schools face, they may not understand how this leaves our middle schools literally stuck in the middle.

Each year the Town of Longmeadow goes through a capital planning process in which departments submit projects to the Capital Planning Committee for evaluation. The Capital Planning Committee has, on several occasions, voted against any project for the middle schools for fear that a renovation or replacement of the buildings is imminent (and by virtue of that fact, we would be throwing good money after bad). The implication of those failed projects is that our schools continue to age without major facility repairs taking place.

At the same time that our Capital Planning Committee is raising concerns about future plans for our middle schools, our Select Board has opposed moving forward on asking the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to evaluate our middle schools through the Statement of Interest process.

The Statement of Interest or SOI is the first step in any project involving the MSBA. It’s where we declare that we are interested doing something with our schools (that something usually involves renovation or new construction but it can also involve the replacement of roofs and boilers). That submission to the state does not commit the town to spend any money — it simply is a way for our community to tell the state that we have schools in rough shape and we’d like them to come take a look.

Even though the SOI does not commit the town to spending any money, the Select Board has voted against submitting a SOI to the MSBA in recent years.

So the question is — if we won’t fund projects like new roofs and windows for our middle schools for fear we are going to renovate and build new schools and we won’t ask the state to come look at whether we need to renovate or build new schools, what are we supposed to do?

While this may seem like a political tug of war between two boards, there are actual, real life consequences to this inaction by the Select Board — it just happens to only impact our students and teachers.

It may be convenient politics to say that “it’s only 3 years” in middle school, but those three years are among the most formative years in our students lives. It’s when they learn to be adults, they learn higher-order thinking skills and begin to take interests in specific subjects. Yet it’s difficult to teach science in labs that are too small — a problem we face at Williams.

We are not talking about building new middle schools, we are talking about asking the state to help us evaluate what to do with our middle schools.

We are not committing to spending money — that is a decision that rests solely with Town Meeting.

We are asking for the right to know whether our schools are in good shape or not. As citizens, have a right to know the full extent of the needs and issues within our middle schools and a no vote by the Select Board is a dereliction of their duty to provide the public with information that could be helpful in saving taxpayer dollars or ensuring a safe and healthy learning environment.

Now is the time for our Select Board to act — and I hope they do. Our students deserve it.