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Marinelli: Enrollment figures on placeholder aren’t ‘credible’

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HARVARD — When the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) lifts its moratorium for funding new projects, the applicant line is likely to form fast, and it may be long, according to School Committee Chairman Willie Wickman.

The district should act now to reserve a place in the queue, she said.

The committee wants to send a “placeholder” and supporting documents to the state, Wickman said at the May 22 Board of Selectmen meeting, but it needs the selectmen’s authorization. Though she didn’t give a deadline for doing so, she said it needs to be done “soon.” It’s not an application at this point, she said, and may be withdrawn at any time.

But Selectman William Marinelli objected to enrollment data the committee plans to send with the pre-application. Since the state may make determinations now that might affect an application later, he said projected figures seem to belie the goal, which is to show the need to build a new school sometime in the future.

Those figures show a total enrollment of 1,300 students in fiscal year 2006, 1,254 in FY07 and declining projected enrollments for several years. Marinelli asked where the numbers came from.

“This shows 130 students less in 2016 I don’t find it credible,” he said.

Wickman said she wasn’t sure of the source at first, but after some discussion, the general consensus was that the numbers came from the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), which provides professional development services to schools.

“The Facilities Study Committee will be providing more accurate, updated information,” she said.

But the issue isn’t all about numbers. The Harvard Elementary School (HES) kindergarten wing has had mold issues for years, she said, and the building’s long-term viability is tenuous. Although the mold is under control now, she said some of the solutions, such as installing fans and removing carpets, are short term. The problem could crop up again.

Although there are no plans, per sé, to build now, Wickman said it’s a given the town will need to front a school building project in the future.

“There’s no question the elementary school is overcrowded,” she said. “That’s why the sixth grade moved to (The Bromfield School).”

Marinelli didn’t buy it.

“I was on the building committee. Bromfield (the new addition) was designed to take the sixth grade,” he said.

He blamed a separate plan the committee hatched on its own to create an integrated preschool at HES for using up classroom space.

“That’s why HES is overcrowded,” he said.

“The reality is, both schools are either at or close to capacity,” said Wickman.

“I’m not inclined to support this,” Marinelli said. The figures, which he said, “We don’t believe,” could have a negative impact on a future project application.

Chairman Lucy Wallace suggested a “qualifying statement” that could be inserted in the documents to put the disputed numbers in perspective.

Marinelli said no. He suggested Wickman provide more accurate data and said the board can take the matter up at its retreat May 29.

Wallace nixed that idea. She said the board has agreed not to vote or take any specific actions at that meeting.

Selectman Timothy Clark proposed inserting “more realistic projections.”

“I’d be willing to live with that,” said Marinelli.

Wickman agreed to ask Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Jefferson for the data.