A record number of kindergartners entered the Newton public schools this fall, according to district officials, who said steadily climbing enrollment at all grade levels will likely require redistricting, further school renovations, and more classrooms.
“It’s been rising for a while, steadily,” Superintendent David Fleishman said of enrollment. “Our challenges remain better facilities and more permanent space. . . I’m going to mention this word, it’s a tough word, the ‘R’ word: redistricting.”
Enrollment rose this year for the ninth straight year, reaching 12,438 by Oct. 1, according to preliminary numbers presented at a School Committee meeting Tuesday by Deputy Superintendent Sandra Guryan. This year’s kindergarten class of 960 is the largest in more than 40 years; across all grades the district added 268 students, a bump of 2.2 percent from last year, and the biggest single-year percentage increase in 20 years.
“We have plans to renovate three elementary schools and enlarge two of those three for more space,” said Fleishman. “We have other work to do, and we’re starting to think about that as well. The key in all of this is really good planning.”
Taxpayers are already funding three elementary school building projects — at Angier, Cabot, and Zervas — approved as part of an $11.4 million Proposition 2½ override passed in March. Early this month, the Massachusetts School Building Authority voted to contribute up to $11.5 million toward the $37.5 million Angier School project, and construction is expected to begin next spring.
On the rise
School officials are hopeful that the Cabot School project will soon be accepted into the state funding pipeline; the Zervas School project, which is being funded without help from the state, is about to begin a feasibility study.
But most of the city’s elementary schools, which were built between 1919 and 1967, are in need of renovation or repair, said Guryan, and they are too small for the growing student population. The district has already added modular classrooms to several schools, and has shuffled classes around at others to free up space, but those are temporary solutions.
The preliminary proposal she presented Tuesday night, Guryan said, would target Lincoln-Eliot Elementary School as the next large-scale renovation or replacement project, followed by Ward Elementary School. Both projects would add classrooms and bring capacity up to around 400 students, and the city would seek some funding from the state.
But the district would hope to do smaller-scale projects first at Williams Elementary School in Auburndale and Peirce Elementary School in West Newton, she said. Those projects, she said, would require feasibility studies, but might include adding blocks of classrooms or combination cafeteria-auditoriums.
Guryan also recommended doing a feasibility study on the Education Center on Walnut Street, which holds offices and preschool classes, to see whether it could be completely converted to classroom space. She recommended evaluating preschool needs as well as reviewing the city’s middle schools to see whether they will also need to be renovated or expanded.
A tentative timeline that runs through fiscal year 2032 shows renovation or construction on all the city’s elementary schools, as well as the Bigelow and Brown middle schools. The timeline could be accelerated if more than one swing space is available for students.
Even if enrollment rates decrease, said Fleishman, the city would still need to renovate and consider expanding its schools. The district must also consider the effect of development: The recently approved Station at Riverside, a residential, retail, and office project that will include 290 apartments, will add about 75 additional students to the school system, according to projections.
Elementary school redistricting will also be necessary, said Fleishman. The Zervas School project will open 100 more slots, while other schools remain overcrowded. It was not clear how many schools would be affected by redistricting, and Fleishman said the schedule for when redistricting would start depends largely on how quickly the Zervas project comes together.
When redistricting does occur, said School Committee member Jonathan Yeo, it will be a public process and would likely be done gradually by rerouting students about to enter school, not those already attending a facility. The process may also need to look at how students are lined up to enter the middle and high schools.
“In a city with 15 schools and tight capacity, it’s necessary to redistrict on an occasional basis, because we don’t have the elbow room in these schools to accommodate the ups and downs,” said Yeo. “One thing that Newton has always tried to do is keep kids in the schools they’re in, and not move them around.”
While the city is focused on renovation and expansion of existing elementary schools in response to burgeoning enrollment, some residents have called for a 16th elementary school to be built, to serve students in Newton Upper Falls.
“It would relieve the overcrowding almost everywhere,” said Susan Huffman, a member of the Newton Upper Falls Area Council and chairwoman of the group’s subcommittee on school issues. With another elementary school, she said, Upper Falls students would no longer need to be bused to other neighborhoods for school, and having more small neighborhood schools would foster community.
Yeo, however, called the idea of a 16th school “inefficient,” and said that the district’s expansion and renovation plan will solve the enrollment problem.
“We are confident that our five-year plan addresses the needs and growth of the population in Newton Public Schools, and we at this time do not believe we need to add a 16th school,” said Mayor Setti Warren. “But within the next five years, we’re continually evaluating what our options are.”
Board of Aldermen member, and mayoral candidate, Ted Hess-Mahan said he believes a 16th school is the answer.
“We should have more neighborhood schools, not fewer, that are within walking distance so that people who live particularly on the south side of the city don’t have to get on a bus and pay bus fees to go to school,” said Hess-Mahan. “Bigger is not always better. . . It destroys any sense of community that a neighborhood school provides.”
While the projects at the Angier, Cabot, and Zervas schools are already funded, city officials said they had not yet established where money to renovate and expand other schools would come from, though they predict some aid would come from the state.
“This represents the vision that we’ve been working toward over the last four years, of having long-term sustainable capital plans for our city,” said Warren. “We are very excited, looking not only at the next five years but the next 20 years.”