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Neighbors challenge Newton school project

Some want Zervas expansion scaled back

Plans to build a new, and bigger Zervas Elementary School in Newton are moving forward despite a lobbying effort by a neighborhood group that wants the work stalled long enough to convince city officials that a scaled-back project is the better way to proceed.

Members of the Newton Highlands Neighborhood Area Council say it is not necessary to expand the school’s site, which the plan would accomplish by acquiring three homes along Beacon Street, and say the current plan does not maintain the tradition of having “walkable’’ schools for younger students.

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A vote by the Board of Aldermen scheduled for last month to approve the $2.7 million needed to purchase the Beacon Street properties was postponed until next month to allow more time for work on the plans to be completed.

Alderwoman Ruthanne Fuller, who also sits on the Zervas School Building Committee, said she anticipates her colleagues will approve the funding to buy the land, which she said is a key to the success of the Zervas expansion.

“Negotiations with all three homeowners are progressing nicely,” she said.

Members of the Zervas building committee say the Beacon Street properties are needed for on-site faculty parking and an adequate play area. They say the design incorporating the three adjacent properties will call for 75 parking spaces in front of the new, two-story school, which will be double the size of the current building.

Original plans called for 80 to 95 spaces.

‘Many of us would prefer that our schools remain local and neighborhood-based, rather than drawing on a wide radius.’

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“We are paying very close attention to what we are hearing from the neighborhood,” said School Committee member Steven Siegel, who is also a member of the Zervas panel.

For example, he said, a traffic loop in front of the school that was included in preliminary plans was eliminated after feedback from residents who questioned the need for the drop-off arrangement at the expense of parking and open space.

Siegel and Fuller both said a plan being promoted by the neighborhood council that would move parking off-site is not workable.

They said wetlands around the back of the property prevents parking there, and moving the spaces elsewhere would just create other problems in a neighborhood that already has concerns over traffic related to the school.

“There are one thousand different things we are trying to balance,” Siegel said. “We are convinced that this is an appropriate plan.”

The building committee is also convinced of the need to expand the school from its current 370 students to as many as 490 to address overcrowding issues in the city’s school system, which has had an increase of more than 900 students during the past decade.

While Zervas has traditionally been a small, neighborhood school, the replacement building will draw students from other areas of the city to ease overcrowding at their local elementary schools.

The new school’s wider reach is a key issue for those who oppose the current plan, many of whom are still lobbying the School Committee to build a 16th elementary school to address overcrowding, rather than increase the capacity of neighborhood schools in need of renovation.

The School Committee dropped the concept after it could not find a site for a new school that did not have substantial acquisition costs or other issues.

Voters last year approved property tax increases to pay for renovations at the Zervas, Angier, and Cabot elementary schools.

Construction at the Angier School is already underway, with its returning students scheduled to start classes this fall at the Carr School, on Nevada Street in Newtonville, which has been renovated to serve as a swing space during the building projects.

Students are expected to return to a completed Angier in January, when Zervas School students would then move in while construction at their school starts.

Plans for the Cabot School expansion will get started once the Zervas School work is underway.

For some parents in Newton Highlands, the plans to expand the schools go against the neighborhood school concept that has always made the city’s villages distinct.

“The current Zervas plans replace the concept of ‘walkable’ schools with one of enlarging centrally located schools requiring more people driving to school,” Srdjan Nedeljkovic, president of the Newton Highlands Neighborhood Area Council, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

Nedeljkovic and others on the neighborhood council, one of four in the city, said they agree that the Zervas School needs to be reconstructed, with the addition of a cafeteria, new gymnasium, and library among other things, but disagree about how it should be done. They have said that another smaller, neighborhood school should be an option.

They said that the proposal’s expanded frontage on Beacon Street would require cutting down mature trees and destroy the character of their neighborhood, and that the dedicated lane on Beethoven Road for drop-off and pick-up would encourage parents to drive their children to school rather than have them walk or bike.

“Many of us would prefer that our schools remain local and neighborhood-based, rather than drawing on a wide radius from other communities that require busing or driving to get to school,” Nedeljkovic wrote.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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