HomeNewsCommon Questions about the new Elmwood School and Hopkins Addition

Common Questions about the new Elmwood School and Hopkins Addition

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The kids are out for the summer, but in a few months there will likely be no issue more hotly contested than the new Elmwood School and Hopkins School additions. As we wrote about last week, at a special Town Meeting to be scheduled this fall, voters will be asked to approve an estimated $155,000,000 in spending for schools, with another $121,000,000 requested starting in 2025. These measures will have an extraordinary tax impact on Hopkinton residents, who will see their taxes rise 37% by 2033 if all ballot measures are approved. 

>> RELATED: Hopkinton Taxpayers Face a Difficult Road Ahead

Setting the financial argument apart for the moment, which is empirical, there are many questions about the school building projects, with some residents wondering whether they are necessary at all. 

For clarity, the two projects discussed below are a new school for Elmwood Elementary (grades 2-3) and building an addition to the Hopkins School (grades 4-5).

#1: Won’t the Enrollment Bubble burst at some point?

This is perhaps the most cited objection to building a new school. The premise is that Legacy Farms brought an influx of children which is causing excess strain on the capacity of our schools. At some point those children will age out of the schools and then we’ll be left with empty classrooms.

According to Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) demographers and the District’s demographer this is factually inaccurate. The table below shows the enrollment each school was built for, the current enrollment, and the projected enrollment by 2032.

The Marathon school is significantly over capacity today, and those numbers exclude the integrated preschool, which today has 115 students enrolled. In actuality, the Marathon school is hosting 776 students in a building created for 395.

The “enrollment bubble” theory also belies common sense. Many families move to Hopkinton to take advantage of the excellent schools, and when their kids graduate, they move out. They are replaced with other families with young children and the cycle repeats. While the national birth rate is declining, it does not factor significantly into the projections. 

Finally, the notion that this is “all Legacy Farms” is inaccurate. The Planning Board has continued to approve small and medium-sized developments throughout town in the years following the construction of Legacy Farms. Each of those homes has brought an influx of students. Today, there are 697 students enrolled that live in Legacy Farms apartments, condos and single family homes. This accounts for just 18% of all students; the remainder live elsewhere in Hopkinton.

#2: The ESBC is building a castle. Does it need to be this fancy?

The Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC), chaired by resident Jon Graziano, meets bi-weekly on Tuesday evenings, and all members of the public are invited. Their meetings are broadcast live and available on HCAM. At their last meeting on June 13, no members of the public attended. At a virtual listening session hosted last night less than 5 residents joined to ask questions.

Despite the lack of public participation, the 13-member committee has received much feedback about the cost of the project and as such has worked to reduce it. In recent meetings, they quite literally cut corners off the building, and in the process saved an estimated $2-3 million in projected build costs. They are routinely making compromises on the materials used to construct the building in an effort to balance durability and the economics of the project. 

But the larger point is this: No one yet knows how much this project will cost. The designers of the project (Vertex) have provided a ballpark estimate to the committee of $164MM, which is based on their experience with other similar projects. The MSBA has offered Hopkinton $44MM with the remaining $120MM expected to come from voters. This number is highly speculative; the choice of building materials, cost of labor, and configuration of the building will create large swings in total price.  

By August the ESBC will have finalized the design choices. Then the project will move to at least two cost estimators and their proposal will come back to the ESBC for review. The $44MM offer from the MSBA is not indefinite; we will need to vote by November or the money disappears.

#3: The schools built in neighboring towns cost a lot less. How come Elmwood is so expensive?

The MSBA gives local authorities broad discretion in how they choose to educate their students. Factors like classroom size determine the overall cost of the building, and these decisions create a ripple effect, because the gymnasium, cafeteria and other supporting rooms in the building need to be appropriately sized to accommodate student needs.

According to Vertex, one of the the biggest factors driving cost is that Hopkinton is starting with a net-new location. Many of the schools built in other towns are sited on land that is build-ready, where the lot has been cleared, roads are built, utilities are in place and other and key infrastructure exists. That is not the case with the Elmwood project, where the site selected is virgin land. Additionally, at Town Meeting, voters approved Article 46, which set Net Zero and sustainability targets for all municipal buildings. Five years ago almost no town in the Commonwealth had a similar measure, said the Vertex team. This requirement introduces added costs to the building.

The largest cost driver is inflation. Since the Marathon school opened in 2018 construction costs have risen dramatically. Marathon was built for approximately $400 per square foot and Elmwood is projected at $750.

#4: There are many empty buildings on South Street. Why didn’t we just purchase one of them?

The ESBC considered many options for the Elmwood school, including adding on to the existing location on Elm Street as well as repurposing a vacant building on South Street. For reasons too many to explore here, none were deemed viable. Further, the $44MM from the MSBA is only available for new construction or adding on to an existing school; it does not apply to retrofitting a building not formerly used as a school. 

#5: Why can’t they just make it work and do more with less?

The national average class size in the US as of 2022 is 24 students, and in Massachusetts it’s 19. Hopkins is currently at 26 in fifth grade.

This year the administration made several adjustments to support the burgeoning class size. Hopkins was built with a large multipurpose space that educators used for specialized reading instruction, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) training, and other support services. This space has been dismantled in favor of classrooms. Those students have been moved to smaller spaces, including the principal and assistant principal’s offices. The principal and assistant principal will now share an office, which was formerly a conference room.

In the near term, the administration projects they will need 6 more classrooms to support 120 students at Hopkins. One option is to partition the gym to put three classrooms there. They will also move portable trailers to the site to create the other three. And while this provides an environment, it strains other aspects of the operation. 120 students will create an additional lunch wave, and the cafeteria and food service operation today are not staffed to support that. Notably, with 120 students, approximately 15% will be on an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which necessitates at least two more classrooms to provide special education support. 

This fall, Hopkinton voters will face the difficult choice of balancing their pocketbooks with their desire to continue delivering high quality education to our young people. Unlike similar measures in the past, the outcome is far from certain.

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  1. Who knew that if you build it (a world-class school system) they will come was a tax payer’s curse?

    I hate seeing a seemingly never ending series of property tax increases. I applaud the fiscal efforts of town management to maximize non-resident funding. I want Hopkinton to continue to lead in education even though my youngest is now 22.

    I worry that the rest of town infrastructure is also on the cusp of failing due to capacity. I feel like another curse, “may you live in interesting times”, is also visiting Hopkinton.

    Strap in everyone, it going. to be a bumpy ride.

  2. “Many families move to Hopkinton to take advantage of the excellent schools, and when their kids graduate, they move out. They are replaced with other families with young children and the cycle repeats.”

    Am I the only one angered by this? No consideration of seniors on a fixed income that are being squeezed out. These families also have never seen a debt exclusion they didn’t like. They’ll be long gone when the bill comes due…

  3. The team at HopNews is doing an outstanding job with coverage of these important issues. Kudos to all of you.

    As for the story itself, this is a disaster in the making. The cycle about which was spoken will break if taxes go up that high: nobody will want to move into town.

  4. How well was the ESBC meeting communicated? I am a resident with children off to college, but if I had elementary children this would be top of mind to me and other parents. Are these meetings not publicized? Via social media, Facebook, school communications…? Or are people just simply too busy or complacent?

  5. Is the table you provided on school capacity correct? It appears that the real space crunch is at Marathon and Elmwood is currently under capacity. For the enrollment, I suggest taking a look at the Growth Study from 2021 (available on the town website) as it sheds some light on the true drivers of the growth in our student population.

    • The data in the table comes directly from the district office. The projections are a blend of MSBA demographers as well as an independent demographer the district hired. These numbers have been shared by Dr. Cavanaugh at School Committee meetings as well as at Town Meeting in May.

  6. I question the authorship of the Q&A, purportedly written by the HopNews staff. In my opinion, this appear to be purely a “puff piece” authored by the very people who have devised the school capital proposals and are asking taxpayers for the money to fund the projects.

    The costs are outrageous and unwarranted. By “cutting corners” one to two million was cut from a 120 million dollar project? Absurd. Cut 50%, then come back and talk to the taxpayers.

    When the school system takes and spends 78% of the Towns taxes, SOMETHING IS RADICALLY WRONG with the entire school system and the leadership (shcool and Town) who continue to support these financailly disasterous projects.

    JUST SAY NO when asked to spend the money.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mr. Kawlik. We can confirm that the HopNews team authored this piece. We disagree with your suggestion that it is a “puff piece”. Like all complex issues, there are multiple factors to consider. It is indisputable that Hopkinton’s schools are over capacity now and very likely will be within the next 10 years too. It is also indisputable that to construct new schools and make the necessary renovations will be incredibly expensive – a fact we outlined in great detail in this article: https://hopnews.com/hopkinton-taxpayers-face-a-difficult-road-ahead. Our objective is to present multiple aspects of the argument and let the voters decide.

  7. If Hopnews staff wrote the article, no doubt the participation of others pushing their pet projects and whispering in your ears is a certainty. Or were pre-prepared scripts and talking points provided?

    Your data shows that only Marathon Scholl could reasonably be called “over-capacity”; which is a subjective figure at best. Temporary space, rented excess business space and such should certainly be considered before new buildings and major additions are considered. Too many people have an eye on the potential $44 million grant to sell a series of projects which make no sense and that we cannot afford.

    Hopkinton needs to live within its means; if this eventually requires larger class sizes, salary cuts, elimination of staffing, so be it. We have been given rosy projections as “part of the sell” on projects like Legacy Farms and numerous others for far too long. All, including the multi-year construction disaster in Town have proven to be debacles.

    Our leaders should be happy to have received a State grant for the beautification of the downtown area at the cost of ease-of-travel, road width for emergency vehicles and a bicycle path that is clearly a safety hazard.

    Our Town needs to cut costs, get the Town’s finances in-sync with the taxpayers ability to pay them and to SAY NO to expensive projects we cannot afford. Ignoring the continuing financial disconnect between DESIRES and NEEDS can no longer be ignored; as taxpayers we need to realize this.

    Should we be proud that our previous largesse has given our children a high quality education, but has also created a Town that they cannot afford to live in???

    I encourage all taxpayers to VOTE NO on all of the proposed capital projects and to work to get school expenses to no more that 60% of tax revenues within the next 5 years. In my opinion, A TAXPAYER REVOLT is long overdue in this town.

    • With due respect, are you sure you studied the table well enough? Every school will be over capacity within the next 10 years, according to demographers. Are you certain it’s subjective? Have you read the Wagman report that leverages the cohort survival method to predict Hopkinton’s student population? Because we have, and it seems reasonable and considers several variables – birth rate, family size, building permits, and more. It’s fairly comprehensive.

      The tax issue is thorny. The student population issue is also thorny. Both are real. There are no clear answers. Let’s not condescend our town by simply saying “vote no to new taxes” or “vote yes for schools”.

  8. I disagree with the claim that “the “enrollment bubble” theory also belies common sense”. Having gone to school in a town in Wisconsin that was going through the kind of growth that Hopkinton finds itself coping with now, I experienced a town overbuilding schools that later had to be closed as the population aged. My parents and most of my former neighbor’s lived there until they died because that’s where they had put down their roots.

    It’s a pie-in-the-sky assumption that empty nesters will move out after their kids move on to college or homes of their own. Some do, but a lot fewer than your demographers seem to think. A lot gets invested into one’s home both financially and emotionally and many will stay put because it’s “home” and because they still need the space for grown children that “boomerang” or come to visit with the grandchildren. The claim that they’ll relocate just doesn’t hold water in real life and the projections of future student populations are just some demographer’s best guess and are in no way a given that will absolutely happen. Statistics are just generalities that are difficult to apply to specifics, so it would be a mistake to take them as established fact for what the future holds for Hopkinton.

    • Very good and rational points. As an empty nester and long-term resident I fully agree with your post. Decisions are usually based on the best data available; unfortunately, the best data availabe can often be very wrong.

      HopNews points to the projected school enrollments data from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. I would imagine that similar data was avalable 5 years ago when planning was underway for the Marathon School. The end result is a school near maximum capacity before the paint was dry on its walls! If the available data was bad then, what makes us think the newer data will be any more accurate. No, it is a best guess based on one looking at previous trends, making assumptions on growth and making a table as that presented in the HopNews article.

      Also as pointed out by HopNews, Hopkinton has a big financial problem and neither uncontrolled growth (for the sake of growth) or reckless spending are rational solutions. When the Town is flush with relatively new, modern and empty buildings very, very strong consideration should be made for renting or leasing available space for school expansion before breaking out the bulldozers and saddling the residents with a $120M++ capital expense. The same can be said for other proposed major renovations and ugrades related to the schools.

      Unfortunately sanity and rationality appear to be in very short supply in our Town. The recent School Board election is a good example of this. Due to some very nefarious and downright evil actions (thankfully exposed by HopNews) we now have a member of the school board who is new in town, has no childen in the school system, is carrying a good deal of “baggage” with her and also has difficulty spelling Hopkinton. This at the expense of a decent candidate for the office with children in the system, who has been active in helping out at the schools and apprears to be a caring and loving parent. This all because she apparently ruffled some of the feathers of one of the treasures of the teachers union and/or one of the town’s political parties.

      I can recall when Hopkinton was looked at as a semi-rural town. We had trash pickup
      once per month and could leave our edible garbage out each week for the local pig farmer’s animals. Today we just have a different type and apparently privileged group who feed at the same trough along with the residents wallets.

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