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Unified middle school could save more than $1 million

Date: 1/14/2016

WILBRAHAM – Superintendent of Schools M. Martin O’Shea said if the district were to create a unified middle school it could save between $1 to 1.5 million annually during a public information session on Jan. 7.

O’Shea said the district could save $1.2 million annually in personnel savings at a level service and $675,000 with an improved level of service to middle school students. Operational savings would be $250,000 if Thornton W. Burgess (TWB) was closed and its student body and staff members were moved to Wilbraham Middle School (WMS).

“The reason we know this is because we sat down as an administrative team and we scheduled a sort of fictitious 700 or 750 student middle school and laid out the staffing plan that we would need to support students,” he added.

He continued, “The hard fact is that we would have to reduce teaching staff. That’s a difficult thing. We have incredibly talented teachers in this district, but at the end of the day we want to again be responsible with tax dollars, we want to be cost effective, we want to make sure that the budget that we have is being directed in ways that are responsible and good for learning.”

O’Shea said 81 percent of middle school teachers support unifying the two schools, according to a survey that was distributed to staff in October 2015. 

He added the Middle School Task Force (MSTF) has focused on short-term and long-term solutions during the past year and a half since it was formed in order to address the district’s ongoing decline in enrollment.

O’Shea said a short-term solution would be to create a combined middle school, which would require Town Meeting approval from Hampden and Wilbraham residents to amend a regional agreement between the two town, and potentially purchase modular space for WMS.

The School Committee has yet to decide whether WMS or TWB would be the preferable site for a combined middle school, however a JLS Architect feasibility study of the two schools revealed that it would be impossible to install modular space at TWB.

O’Shea said modular space at WMS could cost $630,000 to $640,000.

“We could add 4,000 square feet of modular space to [WMS] and the cost ... If it were done as a three-year lease, you’re looking at about $82,000 annually to lease that space, but there would be a one-time cost to hook up the space to the tune of about $180,000,” he added.

The cost of “mothballing” TWB – the minimal upkeep expenses for the building – is estimated within “tens of thousands of dollars,” he noted.

O’Shea said the district has worked with its busing company – the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative – to create route plans that would not increase average rider time with a combined middle school model.

“How could it be that your average rider time would remain the same?” he noted. “The amount of time a kid is on a bus, if you think about it, is a function of how far their home is from the school, but it’s also a function of how many neighborhoods the bus is meandering through to sort of fill the bus. If we were to add one or two buses, it’s almost certain that we would be adding on the Hampden side of the route, you would decrease the amount of time that the buses are meandering through neighborhoods.”

The amount of time students would be on a bus would slightly increase for WMS students and decrease for TWB riders, he noted.

O’Shea said the School Committee has made a prerequisite commitment to only pursue a combined middle school if the average rider time for students does not increase.

MSTF member and TWB Principal Peter Dufresne said he was initially a strong opponent of change to his school, but revised his stance after reviewing data about the issue and speaking with fellow MSTF members and members of the TWB community.

“I have done a 180-degree turn around and I firmly believe that if it weren’t for a town line that we would probably have moved further along with this process,” he added.