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.
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.