To the editor:
Bill Reed, in a recent letter to the editor, asks about why we are building a new $100 million school for a shrinking population in Westport. He cites figures (for which he provides no documentation as to source) on projections for school enrollment for the 2024/2025 school year, among other projections for the town. I thank him for his letter and appreciate the chance to respond.
First, thanks to funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), Westport will not have to pay $100 million for this new school. Our share is $58.9 million. If we squander this opportunity and have to build a school without the help of this grant – and make no mistake, with a contaminated middle school and an aging high school, we will, and soon – it will all be on our dime down the road and will cost much more with increased construction costs and higher interest rates. (Construction costs are increasing by 4%/year).
The real argument for building the new middle-high school is not about capacity, but about educational plan, fiscal responsibilities, and deteriorating buildings. If you own a sedan and it serves you well until it doesn’t, and it becomes too expensive to fix, you purchase a new car. And when you do that, you examine your needs and the way your life has changed, and you buy something that will address your needs.
And Westport is not building a Mercedes here —according to the MSBA, our proposed school is the most cost efficient of all schools expected to begin building next year. It is $103 per square foot less than the highest per square foot cost of the most expensive school to be built when we are to build ours.
Even if Mr. Reed’s figures are correct (and there is evidence that a new school will help drive population growth) the MSBA had us plan for modest growth. Even if the school population goes down, there are still Westport children who need a place to learn and be prepared to compete in a world with others who will have an education that teaches them to think, to communicate, to collaborate. And there will still be a shuttered middle school and a high school with a limited lifespan that need addressing — and without this aid from the state the whole burden will be on Westport.
That said, here are some questions that the Westport School Building Committee in its three- year study explored in reaching the decision to build an 860 student co-located (the school has separate wings for grades 5-8 and grades 9-12) middle-high school:
How do we make a decision about enrollment?
Will there be enough room in the new school for our student population?
Will the new school be too big for the number of students we have?
Why build a new school when enrollment is declining?
At the start of our process, we worked with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, who, as part of its own process for reviewing and approving proposals for funding, prepared an extensive analysis of Westport population trends, beginning in 1993 and ending in 2024. This analysis examined past population figures, past enrollment by grade and estimated future trends. Please visit the westportsbc.com website to see the numerous charts the MSBA used in making their determination about student population. It was on that basis that the MSBA proposed, by letter of June 8, 2015, that a 5th through 12th grade middle-high school building designed to replace the contaminated and vacated middle school should be built to accommodate 860 students.
This sort of analysis is performed by the MSBA for all communities seeking funding by the state to build a new school. It is a rigorous and extensive process. The MSBA has no interest in using these funds, (generated by all of us through one cent of the sales tax) to build a bigger school than necessary in any community. Such a practice would decrease the amount of funds the MSBA has at its disposal to build as many schools as possible. They have statisticians who take into consideration the many factors impacting student population in communities, looking at births, females of child-bearing age, grade to grade survival ratios, base enrollment projections, building permits, housing sales, planned building projects, and many other determinants to arrive at a number of students and building size that they will fund.
They adjust for construction (students who are attending school elsewhere who might return to a newly built school), new planned housing developments, and for enrollment growth over and beyond the forecast period. In this thorough and analytic process, they looked at a 10-year average enrollment, a 5-year average enrollment, a 2-year average enrollment, and 5 and 10 year projections. The 10-year projection was for 555 grade K-4 students and 795 grade 5-12 students. The MSBA increased this number by 3.3 % (35 students for grades 5-12) to bring the total number of grade 5-12 students to 860 in order to adjust to fluctuations in the out-of-district enrollment patterns. The concern was that we have had many students leaving the school system after grade 6 or 8 (approximately 400 per year) and we will need to accommodate those who now stay because of having a great new school with first-class facilities.
Additionally, according to the Donahue Institute at UMass Dartmouth, Westport had a 1.8% increase in population from 2010 to 2015. They state, “Projections by the UMass Donahue Institute anticipate a population growth in the Westport between 2010 to 2035 - the population is expected to increase by roughly 1,500 people (9.7 percent). However, from 2020 to 2035, population growth is projected to slow and level out, with projected growth of approximately 1.4 percent in this period.” They further state, “Compared with other nearby Massachusetts and Rhode Island communities, Westport is among the three communities anticipated to experience the highest population growth in this time frame with Dartmouth projected to grow the most at about 21 percent. Fall River is expected to experience population decline of about five percent.”
We will hold public forums at the Westport Council on Aging on Wednesday, January 17, at noon and at the Westport Business to Business meeting on Thursday, January 18 at 7:30 am. Please join us and get the facts.
Dianne M. Baron
Chairwoman, Westport School Building Committee