Master planning committee's recommendations would bring major changes to Newton school district

Jan. 3—Assessments from the exploration committee tasked with taking a hard look at the future of Newton Community School District recommended three separate scenarios in which the district would either have to renovate, repurpose, remodel and/or demolish buildings, as well as construct a new center for preschool.

According to a report provided to school board members during a work session on Dec. 19, the team leading the master planning discussion was formed of individuals in the district and the city who represent different viewpoints from as broad a perspective as possible. The team was made up of about 30 people.

Sessions were broken up into two to two-and-a-half hour meetings. They were coordinated by the district's engineering firm FRK Architects and Engineers.

The team prioritized wanting students to compete in the future workforce and/or future training and college, providing quality learning, building bridges between the sports/extracurricular activities and community "parent-led" programs and having a focus on innovation.

Three scenarios were presented to school board members during the work session, which include:

—Scenario A: Construct a new grades 1-4 elementary school at Thomas Jefferson or Aurora Heights site and demolish original buildings, selling Woodrow Wilson Elementary site for development and add and remodel Emerson Hough for a pre-K and kindergarten center. This scenario costs more than $40 million.

—Scenario B: Add and remodel Emerson Hough for pre-K-1st grade center, add onto and remodel Thomas Jefferson Elementary into a nine-section grades 2-4 building and then sell the remaining sites for redevelopment. This scenario costs more than $20 million.

—Scenario C: Build a new pre-K-1st grade center at Woodrow Wilson site, repurpose Berg Middle school into a grades 2-6 center, add a new grades 7-8 center to the high school and then sell the remaining sites for redevelopment. This scenario is estimated to cost about $40 million.


The committee reported Scenario A would create better synergy at grade-level collaboration. It also addresses evening out culture between buildings. According to the report, the committee believes Scenario A would be an easier sell than Scenario C. Both scenarios cost about the same amount of money.

The committee also noted drawbacks to Scenario A. The traffic could pose a problem, and all students would be bused. The committee also suggested using the Aurora Heights site over Thomas Jefferson for its more centralized location. The committee would also rather build on a new site than an existing site.

Scenario B provides most operational savings for the upfront cost of more than $20 million. It doesn't build a new building, which might be more palatable in the community. The committee said the scenario also improves culture differences between buildings with grade-level configuration.

On the other hand, Scenario B's pre-K-1st grade split "seems arbitrary" and that first grade may be better off educationally with other elementary students. This scenario also doesn't improve the district's "brand" for Newton elementary schools. And, again, Aurora Heights site was suggested over Thomas Jefferson.

Summary notes from Scenario C points out the moving of grades 5-6 back to the elementary level could be an upside. It also moves grades 7-8 to high school level. The scenario addresses wider community conversation about grades 5-6 at middle school level that has already started; it also address high school issues.

But moving grades 7-8 to high school could be problematic for the age and maturity differences. Money for Berg Middle School upgrades could upset community since it is so new, too. The early education center also could be moved to an existing building to save money.

The committee also noted a grades 7-9 center could be an option.


Regardless of which scenario the school board decides on — or whether they choose a new scenario of their own — the exploration team recommended any solution put forward should affect all of the students in the Newton school district in order to have the broadest appeal.

Some additional athletic and activities space should be included as well, the team stated in its report. Improvements to the high school also need to be included in the any solution. Another component the team stressed is community access to a solution, which would help gain broader acceptance.

Robyn Friedman, chair of the NCSD Board of Education, said board members did not show preference toward one specific scenario over another. Many of them still want input from others in the school district before going forward with any decision. The board did appreciate the "heavy lifting" from the committee.

"We're wanting eyes of staff and other district leaders to take a look at it and see what things pop out as pros or cons of each of those," Friedman said. "Our next steps were asking FRK to create a video explanation similar to what they did in our work session for us so that staff members get a better explanation."

None of the scenarios are final. The next steps in the master planning process is to see which scenarios the school board wants to pursue and whether any additional scenarios are needed or if others need modifications. The selected scenario also needs to be refined and could warrant additional staff input.

Determining funding options would also be ideal — as is keeping the public informed through town halls, public forums and online surveys — before a final plan is finalized. Friedman stressed the importance of the process the committee went through to get information and recommendations to the board.

"It's very important to the process in order for the process to be done with the best intention possible, best outcome possible," she said. "Because I think the more perspectives you get when you are considering any sort of big changes, you want to weigh all those perspectives."