Acton: Vote No on Ballot Question One (School Building)

Acton voters will be asked to approve three Proposition 2½ overrides this Tuesday, December 17, at the ballot box. Voters may cast their ballot between 7 am and 8 pm. For more information, see the Town of Acton’s website here: Polling locations

I will be voting No on ballot Question One, the school building proposal for a new $116 million “twin school.” This will require Acton taxpayers to pay back a bond of $70 million, which will result in an Average Single Family property tax increase of about $500 a year for 30 years. This is, of course, on top of the annual base tax itself, which is currently $11,300. If this override passes, our taxes in six or seven years are expected to hit $15,000. (See the calculation HERE) That is simply unaffordable for many Acton families or those who wish to move here.

The Acton-Boxborough Regional School District (the “School”) insists that this proposal is necessary, our schools are over-capacity, and a new “twin school” for the Gates and Douglas elementary schools will provide a good solution for the next 50 years. Unfortunately, in my opinion, all three assumptions are flawed. And rather than having a robust debate at Town Meeting to discuss the pros and cons, voters were treated to three one-sided "pro" presentations and expected to “rubber stamp” this spending. Projections of this scope, magnitude, and tax implications need to have a more serious vetting process for public approval. Taxpayers are being taken for granted by our political leaders and "voting No" may put this bad practice to a stop.

Here are my reasons for opposing this proposal:

NO NEED FOR A NEW “TWIN SCHOOL”

We do not need to build a new “twin school” building to replace Douglas and Gates. I believe we can build a single-elementary-school building and get by with five schools for at least seven years, and perhaps much longer. A smaller project would immediately save $1,000,000 per year on bond payments, save $11 million in interest over 30 years, and would allow us to consolidate our elementary schools, saving about $2,500,000 a year from our operating budget. These savings, adding up to $3,500,000 a year, would approximately cover the new building’s bond payment each year, so long as we maintain five elementary buildings instead of six. (To review my calculations for these savings, click HERE for BOND SAVINGS) and HERE for OPERATING COST (OVERHEAD) SAVINGS)

The School believes our buildings are currently over capacity, and they have projected enrollment increases that take us back to historic high-water marks of 2005 and 2009. I do not see our Kindergarten to Sixth Grade (K-6) populations surging to those levels. But if they really are, the presentation by the School at Town Meeting didn’t convince me, and my research into this has not changed my mind. I have links and graphics to make my points below, and links to the School data by year for those who wish to look at the numbers directly.

This larger “twin school"-building project assumes that elementary (K-6) enrollment will climb to 3,050 within 10 years, and that is a questionable conclusion based on my careful review of all the data provided by the School, not just at the Special Town Meeting (STM) last week, but also in response to requests for information from me, and my general research into the issue. We are currently at 2,640 students.

CURRENT FACILITIES HAVE SPACE

Our current elementary schools were built to hold many more students than they do now, and have held many more students than they do now. I understand that asking the School to find creative solutions to do tutoring, or have music lessons, or break into smaller groups, may be difficult in older buildings. But Acton has graduated several generations of students who have excelled despite being in these buildings. I think we need some creative solutions to these logistic problems and not a brand new gigantic building. When compared to spending $116 million, perhaps instead we can get by with a couple of extra modular units here or there.

Here is my chart of current enrollments by elementary school and the maximum capacity of each building based on past enrollments. It shows a difference of about 700 students. With the smallest school having less than 400 students currently, we could close that school, move those students around, and still have 300 spaces left. (Click HERE)

And let me note that if the margins really look too tight, let's build a slightly larger single-elementary school at Gates. Instead of 500, let's build it for 650, if necessary. At the end of this article, I have links to other Acton Forum articles that might give additional background.

ENROLLMENT PROJECTIONS

Closing an elementary school only makes sense if enrollment predictions don’t show a need for the extra space. Miraculously, the School’s presentation at last week's Special Town Meeting (which approved the project, hence Tuesday's ballot vote to override Proposition 2 1/2) showed just such a need. This was created, in part, by underestimating the capacity of current buildings in use, and setting artificially low capacities for the elementary school buildings. (Click DW Architects Capacity Chart). According to their argument, Douglas School has been well above capacity for over 25 years. That is simply ridiculous. Here is the chart showing Douglas’ “capacity” and the last 25 years of enrollment: (Click Douglas.pdf)

The School creates a projected enrollment report every year. It is done by a company called NESDEC, and the information presented at the Special Town Meeting last week showed an alarming upward trend over the next 10 years. The graph presented a “V” shaped curve, with a sharp decline and a very sharp increase. But this data (the increasing part) appears to be flawed and misleading in several important ways. First, let me show you the “V” graph used by the School so you get the visual: School Enrollment Projection Chart

If enrollment is truly shooting up like a rocket ship, then we need the twin school project. But if enrollment projections are inflated, we can build a single elementary school and see what happens down the road, saving millions. That’s why the projections matter.

In 2016, the first year NESDEC consulted with the School District, the enrollment projections showed a gradual decline in K-6 enrollment. But in 2017 the projected enrollment suddenly started to go up. As this was the start of the new Building Committee, this does not seem entirely coincidental. And in 2019, the data took another large jump, resulting in the “V” curve. I have plotted all four years (2016-2019) here: Enrollment Projections 2016-2019

The 2019 enrollment projection shown at the Special Town Meeting was a shocking slide to me, because it essentially contradicted the premise of my presentation, so after Town Meeting, I wanted to track down how the 2019 enrollment projections went up so high. It didn't look right, but if the School could backup their numbers, so be it. I was more than willing to review their reasons and if they were right and I was wrong, publish a correction on Acton Forum (I had suggested the single elementary school idea in an article a few days prior to STM). But after several back-and-forth emails and a long conversation on the phone, I have not been shown any compelling data that justifies that 2019 enrollment projection. So I did my own look into the numbers and what I found is outlined below. Something happened between 2018 and 2019, but my analysis shows that perhaps something also happened between 2016 and 2017.

I asked for an explanation and was sent some data from the School that did not seem pertinent, including things like new housing starts (info already incorporated in 2017 or 2018), current Kindergarten enrollment (showed a decrease this year, not an increase, so that worked against them), and home sales (they seem relatively flat these days and past sale increases are already factored in before 2018.) Voters at Town Meeting or at the ballot box, in this case, should not need to do an exhaustive study of data in order to vote. So while I am doing this research, it is the responsibility of our leaders to provide accurate and complete data and failure to do so is a valid justification for voting No.

I asked repeatedly that the School provide backup for the numbers, especially for 2019, and the only other data they pointed to were births. Births can be used to predict Kindergarten enrollment in five years, and Kindergarten enrollment is used to forecast the next six years. So births are a key piece of data, which is then confirmed by kindergarten’s actual enrollments. If they are off, more adjustments should be made. According to the 2019 data from NESDEC, births are increasing by about 10% in 2017 and 2018, and the extra 20 births are being extrapolated into large Kindergarten enrollment projections through 2024, which then flow into the other elementary school grades. I could find no data on birth rates for Acton, so for argument's sake, let’s assume these birth estimates are correct.

Even accepting the birth-rate increase now projected for several years, it still does not fully explain the very high future enrollment projections. They are claiming (approx.) 400-450 extra students and 20 extra births per year for seven years is only 140-210 extra kindergarteners. The numbers are still not convincing. So I looked further.

First, the “actual” enrollments (according to the DESE website, http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/accountability/report/district) are not consistent with the 2019 NESDEC data. I was told this was because “choice” students and children of staff were not counted. But if that is true, why were they counted in the 2018 NESDEC data? This inconsistency is troubling because it seems to artificially lower the current enrollments, thereby making future enrollments look much greater by comparison. 2018: DESE_actual_2018 2019: DESE_actual_2019

Second, the relationship between birth rates and Kindergarten enrollment are central to these projections. I did an historical analysis from 2000 and calculated the average ratio at 156%. So if there are 100 births, that would extrapolate to a kindergarten class size of 156. 200 births would be 312. It is true that some recent data are higher, but this fluctuates every year and is apparently somewhat tied to housing sales as well. I have shown several averages on the chart, and the 2016 ratio is below all the averages while the 2017, 2018, and 2019 ratios are above all averages. Birth to Kindergarten ratios 2016-2019.

In 2016, the year before the School Building project was started, this ratio of births to Kindergarten enrollment was estimated at 152% by NESDEC. After the building project began in 2017, NESDEC raised the ratio to 174% in 2017, 175% in 2018, and 171% in 2019. These increases resulted in hundreds more students projected throughout all the grades. But the most recent ratio, for the single year 2019, is just 153%, possibly indicating that the assumed ratios are way too high in the future. It appears that NESDEC is overestimating kindergarten enrollments by at least 5% and possibly as much as 17%. That is between 12 and 35 extra kids in kindergarten per year. Over six grades and 10 years, that is a lot of generated data based on questionable assumptions and I have little confidence in its accuracy.

As I mentioned earlier, although the births were increased in 2018-2019 and then extrapolated forward, it would only explain about half of the projected increase of 400-450 students. So while we can debate whether this is justified (or just a blip), it does not answer the question in my mind about the huge enrollment increases projected by the 2019 enrollment chart shown at the Special Town Meeting.

In short, this data is untrustworthy.

WORST CASE SCENARIO: IF ENROLLMENT DOES GO UP AS THE SCHOOL PROJECTS

If and when enrollment starts to increase, and it has not yet, and if it is likely to go up by 300 or 400 kids within a few years, we would have to consider building a new elementary school, and that would entail both construction costs (say at $80 million) and raising operating revenue back to where it is now. The 2019 projections show about 3,000 kids by 2026, which is in seven years. We should know in two or three years if those numbers still look realistic or if kindergarten numbers have yet to stage a comeback.

But if we are forced to build another building in seven or more years, we can decide where to put it. Having two elementary schools in West Acton is not such a great idea when we have many new residents moving into North Acton. They deserve their own neighborhood school.

And talk about saving money. If we moved to a neighborhood school model (instead of our current choice school model) we would save considerably on busing costs and bus replacement and repair. Bus and car rides would be shorter, buses would be less full, and we would need fewer buses and bus routes and drivers. We would not need every elementary school to pick up in every neighborhood anymore. We would also encourage walking and biking to school. A neighborhood school would be a great benefit to homeowners and renters in North Acton if that is where it is built. But this is only if we need to expand back to six elementary schools and I just don’t see that necessarily happening.

The current proposal is to build a $116 million school and get about one-third, say $40 million, from the state. If we build a single-school building now, we might expect $24 million from the state. The $16 million we “lost” could be applied for in a future funding request if and when we need to construct a sixth building. Each year we hold off, we save about $3.5 million per year over the current proposal. It wouldn’t take long to make up any shortfall even if it turns out we need to build sooner than expected. Seven years at $3.5 million per year is $24.5 million. Besides the loss of state aid, the new building would cost say $80 million. We saved $40m by downsizing the first project, so we only have to spend an additional $40m. Boxborough would probably pay $6-8m, and the $32 million left would cost $1.6 million per year on a 30-year bond. It might end up being more expensive, but not by that much, in my view. And it is worth the risk, because we get twice as much back with the smaller project and if we don’t need a sixth school, the payoff is far greater. And here is that scenario:

BEST CASE SCENARIO

If we avoid having to build a sixth elementary school forever, we would save about $120 million over 30 years. In other words, we could build the single elementary school at Gates FOR FREE. (No tax increase, no override).

It is unbelievable that the Town Moderator and our other town leaders would not insist that a proposal to possibly avoid $120 million in costs be heard. Spending eight extra minutes at a Special Town Meeting, called to discuss this project, seems like a good investment of time for Town Meeting voters. Opposing viewpoints should be encouraged, not forbidden. And when no one is presenting any information on the "con" side, offering alternatives should be required. The conduct by our town leaders, including everyone up on stage, is shocking and outrageous, in my humble opinion.

OTHER BENEFITS TO VOTING NO

This “twin school” project is a bear. It is going to require students to attend Gates while a three-story school is built right next door. It will be noisy, dusty, and distracting. Most parking will be at Douglas, which will be very inconvenient. And this will go on for a long time. If we downsize the project, it will likely be cheaper and much easier. And we can move the Gates kids so the existing building can be razed and built more quickly. When done, the Douglas kids move in and Douglas gets razed. (And if the projections are way off, and enrollment climbs quickly, we could keep Douglas open until we are ready to close it.)

We may have other projects coming up, including replacing Conant School, which is almost as old as Douglas and Gates (built in 1970). Money is not unlimited, and voters don’t always approve overrides. What happens when average property taxes are $15,000 a year and the School asks taxpayers for another capital override to fund a new building for Conant? By avoiding the increase now, we preserve the option of an increase later.

Regardless of how you feel, please get out and vote Tuesday. This is democracy in action, despite the lack of publicity (the Beacon didn’t even mention that we have three override votes. Very curious.)

For anyone interested, I do plan on "voting yes" on ballot questions two and three.

REFERENCES and LINKS

10/1/2015 Enrollment Report (Ashtons): 2015 ENROLLMENT

11/3/2016 Enrollment Reports (Ashtons and NESDEC): 2016 ENROLLMENT

11/5/2017 Enrollment Reports (Ashtons and NESDEC): 2017 ENROLLMENT

11/15/2018 Enrollment Report (NESDEC):2018 ENROLLMENT

11/5/2019 Enrollment Report (NESDEC):2019 ENROLLMENT

ABRSC Archived Agendas and Minutes, including packets: SCHOOL ARCHIVES

OTHER LINKS/RESEARCH:

HOME SALES: LaMacchia Realty has some housing stats. They had Acton posted for the last five months of 2018 (showing a decline in sales from 2017 to 2018 from 172 to 153) but their 2019 mid-year statewide report noted 2% drop in sales but expected a higher increase for the remainder of the six months for an overall gain year-over-year.
LAMACCHIA

POPULATION, BIRTHS: MAPC does statistical analysis of housing and demographic trends statewide. They report that the average family size continues to shrink (page 4). They show a rise in births from 2015-2020, then it levels off. From that, I decided not to challenge the increase in the projections on the 2019 birth data. The school-age population in our region is expected to shrink quite a bit in the 2010-2030 period (page 33). The appendix shows a small growth in Acton’s population over 20 years, but fewer kids under 15. This argues that Acton will perhaps have fewer kids moving in when homes sell, or will have fewer children, on average.
MAPC

ACTON FORUM ARTICLES ON THIS TOPIC

Article by community member who wanted the elementary school built in North Acton, and other concerns about cost, Boxborough’s share, and whether we should change grade levels for a real middle school. concerns-regarding-school-building-project

My first article on the proposal to build a single elementary school, prior to Town Meeting: better-school-plan

I request to make a presentation at Town Meeting, and get no response. So I write an article about it and get a response: my request was denied (see comments). /where-joann-berry

After Special Town Meeting and being denied giving a "con" presentation on the school building article, I wrote about why “con” presentations are necessary and included my presentation slides and notes: truth-and-consequences

I explore why it is important for “con” presentations to properly educate Town Meeting voters and the specifics about how my rights were violated by Moderator Berry’s refusal to let me make my presentation: berry-berry-quite-contrary

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