Burbank Picked To Be Modulars’ New Home With a $2.2M Pricetag

Photo: Belmont Superintendent John Phelan.

The fall Special Town Meeting now has a price tag for the big ticket item on its agenda as Belmont Schools Superintendent John Phelan recommended four new modular classrooms be sited at the Mary Lee Burbank Elementary School on School Street.

The anticipated cost of the project – which will be up and running in September 2018 – is $2.2 million, excluding furniture and teaching equipment, Phelan told the Belmont School Committee at its Tuesday meeting, June 20.

“This is a very significant ‘ask’ to the town for the Burbank to take on the modulars,” said Phelan.

The Burbank was selected at the Butler Elementary School to be the home of the third set of modulars used by the district – there are several at the High School while six were installed at the Chenery Middle School in November 2016 – to alleviate the skyrocketing enrollment gains occurring throughout the district.

Phelan said adding the classrooms will help reduce class sizes in elementary grades from 25 and 26 students per room to a more acceptable 22 to 23 students.

Last month, administrators and staff held a pair of two-hour meetings at each school to discuss the concerns of residents and parents of adding prefab structures, afterward was a walk of the sites with an architect.  

The Burbank four modular will be sited adjacent to the rear of the school building which will allow for a covered walkway. The location will also have a minimal impact on neighboring houses as it’s lower than nearby Richardson Road and next to a stone wall.

Another factor leading to the Burbank taking on the modulars was its ability to take on additional students without affecting the teaching going on at the school. While it could have met the needs of students if selected, Phelan said the Butler had been home to a historically smaller school community, which has worked educating students successfully.

The greatest difference between the two proposals was the extensive infrastructure proposed at the Burbank. Including the repair and expansion of the parking lot and the overhaul of the playground area while the Bulter’s improvements would be limited to adding sod to the school’s two playgrounds.

In dollars and cents, the Burbank’s infrastructure costs exceed $692,000 compared to $172,000 at the Butler.

Heather Rubeski of Dalton Road, a Burbank parent and Precinct 7 Town Meeting Member told the committee and Phelan that presenting the most expensive option to the town’s legislative body could result in pushback by members.

“When I look at the cost difference of almost $500,000 … I think there is gonna be a lot of questions at Town Meeting on why are we spending all this extra money to put them at Burbank when the town has many things it needs to spend money on,” Rubeki said.

Putting on her “parent’s hat,” Rubeki also asked why would the district select the Burbank for additional space when the school population has been static resulting in children being bused to the school in September 2019.

“It has a feeling of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ and that has become very noticeable in the parent conversations,” she said.

Town officials and Town Meeting members had already begun on how to pay for the modulars with discussions on whether to dip into the “free” cash account which paid for the prefab classrooms at the middle school (a total of $1.4 million) or to finance the project through a bond.

Phelan said moving forward with the project is the best solution until a decision is made on the future of the new Belmont High School which will impact the district’s building requirements. 

“This is something that I believe is a good decision for the town … that this is a short-term trend that will help inform our long-term planning as well,” he said.

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  1. Jonathan Birge says

    So, a proposed short term solution that is three times more expensive than the other option, poorly articulated hand-waving about the benefits of keeping Butler small (despite it resulting in larger class sizes at Butler initially), all of this resulting in more kids being bused out of their home area than would have been the case with modulars at Butler. It’s really hard to understand the district’s decision on this. About the only thing that is clear is that they have decided Burbank would a priori get the modulars for some unknown reason and then have spent a great deal of effort post-rationalizing that decision to the parents.

    That said, the school district has a darn hard job, and there are no great solutions for Phelan. The great solutions would’ve had to take place a decade or so ago.

    But there is one thing that could make lemonade out of these lemons: use the opportunity to actually help the kids. My proposal would be to make the school that gets the modulars a “center of excellence” for special needs kids, an area our district has trouble supporting due to funding.

    If we’re going to be busing kids all over the district, let’s take the opportunity to choose how this happens instead of just passively doing it randomly. We could focus what little resources we have on special needs on one school, and have all the kids who need help at the same school. This would do far more to help kids who need help than the vague benefits of “keeping Butler small,” which I understand is motivated by the fact that Butler historically has a larger population of kids with special educational needs (as explained by Phelan at one of the parents meetings).

    Belmont is notorious for passively reacting to everything. Let’s actually do something proactive for once and at least get some benefit for kids if we have to break the neighborhood school model.

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