Compromise on Location for Modular Units at Burbank Elementary

Summary: The School Administration has a good plan for locating modular units at Burbank. The next challenge is finding the money to pay for it. 

Everyone in town knows that the biggest problem facing the school district is numbers. We’ve been adding about a hundred students a year to our already crowded schools, but generally not adding the classroom space to accomodate them.

The Space Task Force has been identifying and implementing possible short-term solutions them while we take steps towards the biggest potential problem solver: a new High School which, depending on the final grade configuration, may ease crowding district-wide.

Burbank Elementary

The Belmont Public School administration has a plan for locating modular units at Burbank Elementary – now the question is finding the money to do it.

Last May, when Superintendent John Phelan revealed the latest Space Task Force Update at a School Committee meeting in the BHS auditorium, their recommendation for relieving elementary-level crowding was to place modulars at either Butler or Burbank. Several parents from each of those schools were in the audience, and none seemed particularly enthusiastic about the idea of having modulars and the accompanying increase in enrollment at their school. We envisioned mob scenes in the cafeteria, chaos in the hallways, school drop offs with traffic jams to rival the Fresh Pond rotaries. But, for the Burbank group, the real jaw-dropper in the presentation was one we hadn’t anticipated. The superintendent shared architectural plans from consulting firm SMMA showing a large bus and parking lane bisecting the school’s gently sloping front lawn.

The administration had been hoping to solve safety issues presented by the increasing number of students arriving by bus, and also address the woefully inadequate staff parking parking at the school. They viewed the front lawn as largely underutilized space, citing its slope as making it unsuitable as a play area. As parents, we knew different. We knew that the open green space is used by our kids throughout the year, for play on grass and in the snow, as well as for Colonial Day and Field Day. Outside of school hours, it is a de facto park space for the residential neighborhood that surrounds it. We knew that a bus lane out front would exacerbate issues for walkers and bikers coming from School St. and Sharpe Road, creating another potentially dangerous crossing. And we knew that Burbank’s most pressing infrastructure need was to address our potholed blacktop, the same blacktop that would serve as a surface for the modulars, rendering half of it unusable. One by one, parents (including myself) went up to the mic to object to voice our concerns.

Having seen many presentations led by Superintendent Phelan, I could tell from the data presented about the pros and cons of each school that Burbank was the more likely candidate to host the modulars (see the Space Task Force Update from the meeting, the “Side by Side Reflection of Data” was particularly telling ). I could also tell that he was genuinely surprised by the many parent objections (including my own), and was already thinking of the emails and phone calls he’d be receiving in the coming days.

One thing I’ve seen in my seven years as a Burbank parent is that our community is quick to get engaged to solve problems. As a member of the PTA leadership, I’ve also seen how responsive John Phelan is to the concerns of the school community. What followed the School Committee meeting was a concerted effort on the part of several parents (a few of them Town Meeting Members) and the administration to work together to craft a solution that would benefit students, staff, and the town as a whole. In June, as expected, the School Committee made the choice to request modulars for Burbank, but the work to improve the project had already begun.

We can’t keep packing students into ever more crowded classrooms, and we can’t keep telling the kids tripping over potholes on the Burbank playground that their safety doesn’t matter. Let’s solve both of these problems with one vote. – Jessie Bennett

Phelan, Principal Tricia Clifford, the architects, and parents worked together to craf an infrastructure proposal that would serve the school’s needs for years to come, long after the modulars have been removed. To address the bus safety issue, the town added a bus-only zone and new parking rules on Sharpe Road to already planned pedestrian safety improvements. Instead of adding the bus/parking lane, the architect suggested new ways to utilize the space in the existing parking lot. The new plan for the project also called for resurfacing the crumbling blacktop behind the school (a long overdue safety improvement) and, to compensate for the loss of open space once the modulars are on the blacktop, fixing up a play area near the playground that is mud on rainy days and a dust bowl when it’s dry. Phelan’s presentation at our first PTA Meeting of the year outlined the full project, which is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $2.7 million dollars. The price tag includes the modulars and the infrastructure, and it makes the project a a two-fer for the town: relieve crowding at the elementary level, and ensure adequate, safe play space for Burbank students for years to come.

The next step is in November, when Phelan will go before Town Meeting to ask the town foot the bill. The sticker price is a doozy, but the need is equally great. We can’t keep packing students into ever more crowded classrooms, and we can’t keep telling the kids tripping over potholes on the Burbank playground that their safety doesn’t matter. Let’s solve both of these problems with one vote.

Jessie Bennett is a writer, web designer and social media consultant who specializes in the publishing industry. She has lived in Belmont with her family since 2007, where she is active in the Burbank PTA and Chenery PTO, and serves on the board of the FBE.