SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 11, 2013

Beverly cites ‘severe overcrowding’ as impetus for new middle school

BY PAUL LEIGHTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — BEVERLY — An influx of more than 200 students has prompted officials to cite “severe overcrowding” as a reason the city needs state funding to build a new middle school.

Total enrollment in all of the district’s public schools was up to 4,506 students as of October, an increase of 214 students, or 5 percent, over the previous school year, according to officials.

The School Committee and City Council have both voted to authorize the city to list “elimination of existing severe overcrowding” as a reason for a new school in its second application to the Massachusetts School Building Authority seeking funding.

That reason would presumably boost Beverly’s chances of getting money from the MSBA because overcrowding is No. 2 on the list of priorities the agency must use, by law, to approve projects for funding.

Last year the city cited the obsolescence of the current Briscoe Middle School, Briscoe, which is next-to-last on the MSBA’s list of eight priorities for a building project. This year officials are using both the overcrowding and obsolescence priorities.

School Commitee President Maria Decker said overcrowding has forced the district to rent four classrooms from the North Shore Education Consortium on Sohier Road for preschool classes, while Briscoe Middle School, which has about 1,000 students, is making use of “every available space.”

Total enrollment is projected to grow by another 100 students or more next year, she said.

“Our numbers are growing steadily at all levels,” Decker said.

Decker said Beverly has seen an increase in school choice students from other communities, in special education students from Beverly moving back from out-of-district placements, in Beverly students choosing the high school over private or parochial schools, and in preschool and kindergarten students. The high school enrollment is up 35 over last year.

Decker said the district is becoming more attractive due to its innovative programs, including laptops for all high school students and science specialists in the elementary schools, and the newly built high school. Beverly High was recently accorded Level 1 status, the top status granted by the state, for the first time since 2007.

“That reputation catches up with you,” Decker said. “You’re doing cutting-edge things. I love that people are choosing the Beverly schools, but at the same time we’re so in need for a new middle school in order to house all of our children up and down the spectrum.”

The city wants to build a new middle school at the site of the Memorial Building, a former middle school on Cabot Street. The new school would replace the current middle school at Briscoe, which was built in 1923.

The new school would include grades 5 through 8, which officials say would free up space in the elementary schools. Fifth-graders are now in the elementary schools and Briscoe has grades 6 through 8.

The cost of the new school has not been determined but has been estimated at $40 million. Officials have set a opening date of September of 2017.

State Treasurer Steven Grossman, who oversees the School Building Authority, is scheduled to visit Beverly Tuesday to look at the schools.

A spokesman for the MSBA said the agency does not have a specific standard for what constitutes severe overcrowding.

“We would look at the numbers in the overall context of the school as it’s described in the statement of interest,” spokesman Dan Collins said.

Decker said the city was asked by the MSBA to resubmit its statement of interest this year because the city was not ready to pay for a feasibility study. She said MSBA officials have acknowledged that the city needs a new middle school.

“It’s really about timing, when the community is ready to put the money forward,” she said. “We’re ready to do that this spring.”

Mayor Bill Scanlon said the fact that the district is renting classroom space justifies the “severe overcrowding” description in the city’s request for state funding.

“We are definitely going to need a new middle school, and we do believe we’re going to have a harder time maintaining class sizes going forward (without one),” he said.

The overcrowding priority ranks only behind an unsafe building as the top priority for funding school projects through the MSBA. Scanlon said very few schools meet the “unsafe” standard, so overcrowded districts get top consideration.

“I’m certain that it will help (in getting funding),” he said.

The overcrowding issue arises five years after the city closed the McKeown Elementary School to save money. Scanlon said issues of enrollment and overcrowding can change over the course of a few years.

“The whole thing is dynamic,” he said.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.