Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A speed limit sign signals caution at Somerville’s Winter Hill school June 2 despite it being closed for safety concerns. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Fixing the Winter Hill school is high-priority for Somerville despite its lack of a plan if the state doesn’t offer funding, officials said Monday at a School Committee meeting – although the state funding also comes with a multiyear process.

The Winter Hill Community Innovation School was closed June 2 after a piece of concrete came loose above a stairwell in the 115 Sycamore St. building, which was empty at the time. Concerns about safety meant relocating more than 400 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade between two swing spaces for the year.

The communities at Winter Hill and the Benjamin G. Brown School await news from the Massachusetts School Building Authority on acceptance into a grant program for construction and renovation projects, superintendent Rubén Carmona said. 

Word isn’t expected until sometime in December. But the MSBA recently requested a tour of the schools.

“The recent site visit was a positive step in our minds, and allowed us to present critical information as well as to show the MSBA team in greater detail the condition of the building and our need for a space to accommodate all of the wonderful classes and programs within Winter Hill,” Carmona said during the meeting.

While the district waits to hear, it is undergoing “gap analysis,” a study that indicates what building capacities Somerville Public Schools require now to support students and faculty. Winter Hill is 48 years old, and Brown, in the Powder House neighborhood, is the oldest elementary school in Somerville – it was built in 1900 and doesn’t have recreation, physical education, cafeteria or assembly spaces inside, according to a city report.

One of the key findings of the study is that there is not enough space in the district’s other schools to accommodate Winter Hill and Brown students, Carmona noted. That’s why Winter Hill students went to quickly rethought spaces in the Capuano Early Childhood Education Center and Edgerly Education Building, which needed asbestos remediation.

Given that a MSBA building process can take between five and seven years, Carmona said the district is focusing on “long-term plans for the building as well as the interim plans for Winter Hill students.”

Though Mayor Katjana Ballantyne gave assurances that quality learning environments were a top priority for her administration and the district, community members remain concerned.

Urgency and contingencies

Kara Dodd, a Ward 5 resident and Winter Hill educator – among 28 district educators honored at the meeting for reaching professional teacher status – spoke to “reignite a sense of urgency in this committee regarding the rebuilding of the Winter Hill.”

“I am deeply concerned that if there’s not swift action and urgency in the plans to rebuild the Winter Hill, Somerville Public Schools will begin to see an exodus of the creative passionate teachers that make the Winter Hill community what it is,” Dodd said.

Laura Pitone, Ward 5’s representative on the school committee, also expressed concerns surrounding the precarious nature of the MSBA funding.

“I want to make sure as a community we’re following through with contingency plans,” Pitone said. “If we don’t get the funding this year, we need to have a plan that moves us forward as expeditiously as possible.”

In response, Ballantyne said “we’re just not at that point where we would make that decision.”

Mayor asks for trust

“I don’t want to inadvertently make promises to something,” Ballantyne said, instead asking acknowledgment “that we take this seriously. In nine weeks, we moved an entire school. My staff was working 24/7 throughout the summer and into the school year.”

Ten percent of her first municipal budget was committed to schools, and 8 percent of the second, she said: “I’m invested in this.”

Her administration has also been transparent in sharing information, she said. “Winter Hill and Brown are not the district’s schools or the city’s schools,” Ballantyne said. “They are our community schools, and the community, including our families, educators and staff will be kept informed.”

The next key step in planning is a community meeting set to take place in late October or early November when “we’ll start the formal work of examining and moving toward decisions on building plans for these two schools,” Ballantyne said. The district is expected to hold one meeting for Winter Hill and a second looking at other potentially useful spaces in Somerville.

Other committee business

The committee also discussed personnel matters, including the number of hires in the district this year and their education, diversity and average salary; Carmona’s goals as superintendent; and notes on upcoming district events. Carmona made a point to express sympathies for community members affected by violence in the Middle East.

If students, staff or community members need support, they can reach out to one of the school’s social workers or their school’s main office. “It is our hope that we can come together as a community and lead with kindness and compassion to our fellow residents and offer comfort in the days and weeks ahead,” Carmona said.