WILMINGTON, MA — There’s a messy bathroom situation which has the School Committee and Town Manager Jeff Hull at odds.
Despite unanimous votes of both the Wildwood School Building Committee (December 20) and the School Committee (December 21) to fund the construction of new restrooms at the Wilmington Middle School to accommodate the relocation of 7 Wildwood classrooms (approximately 100 students) for the next 5-6 years, Town Manager Jeff Hull recently reversed course and will no longer be including the capital expense in his proposed FY24 budget.
As relayed by School Committee members, Hull’s new plan recommends having the Middle School’s only first-floor public restrooms, located outside the cafeteria, designated as the Wildwood students’ restrooms. Additionally, no funding is budgeted to adjust the current restroom fixtures to accommodate younger students.
The School Committee took turns lambasting Hull’s decision at its January 18 meeting.
“Wilmington is in this position because of its own failure to address the Wildwood situation when there was time to do so. The Wildwood can was kicked too far down the road until building deteriorated to a point where we couldn’t educate students in it anymore. That’s the situation that we’re in and the bill has come due,” began School Committee Vice Chair David Ragsdale, also a member of the Wildwood School Building Committee.
Ragsdale noted Hull’s new restroom plan makes things worse — not better — for both Middle School students and Wildwood students. For Middle School students, they lose access to their only first floor restrooms. For Wildwood students, their instruction time will be severely impacted.
“Even if we assign the restrooms outside the cafeteria to Wildwood students, they can’t go there by themselves. That’s out of sight, around the corner, out of hearing, from the area of the school they’re going to be in. Students can’t use the restrooms without being escorted by an adult. Teachers will have to stop teaching their classes and escort students to the restrooms,” explained Ragsdale.
“The plan we already approved was a compromise to begin with,” Ragsdale reminded members. “We’re still splitting the Wildwood community across two buildings. We had to cut down on the playground to something minimal due to cost. Compromises have already been made to get it to this point.”
Ragsdale was also frustrated with the process that lead to the bathroom plan being changed.
“There was a process thatwas put in place months ago. We hired a consultant to explore our options. We had a committee with representatives from the Select Board, Finance Committee, Town Admin, School Admin, Building Principals, School Committee, Permanent Building Committee, Public Buildings Department — all stakeholders were at the table,” said Ragsdale. “For months, we spent times evaluating the options. Countless hours analyzing the possibilities. At end of process, the Wildwood Committee — of which the Town Manager is a member — voted on a recommendation to send to School Committee… and the School Committee approved it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the process. The School Committee has voted on the capital item, and it goes forward to Town Meeting as a warrant article. But, at the end of this process, the Town Manager decided to throw out the plan and say ‘here’s the new plan.’ That’s not, at all, the way the process works.”
School Committee member Melissa Plowman echoed many of Ragsdale’s concerns.
“I feel like everything has happened backwards,” Plowman said. “We expended so much money to hire [a consultant] to crunch numbers and figure it out and present all these options. And none would have ever been [financially] feasible anyway. Honestly, I would have preferred that the Town Manager had put some [financial] parameters around this at the start. This has been totally backwards. It’s definitely frustrating and concerning. I’m not comfortable with this request.”
“This is a significant blindside,” Plowman stressed. “We have an entire building of children and staff that has been shut down in this town. We were charged with the responsibility of educating them for the next 5-6 years. What this means — we’ve been given a budget of $500,000 to do that. To, essentially, problem solve the closing of an entire building and educate students in another format. We’ve been allotted $500,000 to do that. My mind is a little blown by that.”
Plowman suggested that, at a minimum, the average 5-year cost to run the former Wildwood should be allotted to fund the relocation project to the Middle School. The savings realized by closing the school should be spent towards constructing restrooms for its students at the Middle School.
School Committee member Stephen Turner was baffled by the Town Manager’s plan.
“Fundamentally, developmentally, a Middle School bathroom and a 4-year-old just don’t go together. It literally, physically, doesn’t work,” Turner said. “The thought process of using restrooms without making adjustments is just mind-boggling.”
“This is already the ‘cheap option,’ continued Turner. “Anything 2 or 3 times higher would be in line with the use of a building for five years. It’s already cheap, and to cut [the capital request] in half is stunning.”
“With the Wildwood plan, we were already at bare bones before this. It’s really shocking to do it with even less,” added School Committee member Jay Samaha. “What is that saying about our priorities as a town and as a district? The way you convey you value a thing is putting money behind it. Through this, I think we are — in many ways — devaluing our community and our schools.”
School Committee member MJ Byrnes was none to pleased with Hull’s “last-minute” change.
“This is in very poor form. [Town officials] need to take into consideration what this actually means. This conversation should have been done months ago. This [change] was so late in the game,” Byrnes said.
Byrnes ran through a list of concerns, including: Middle School students missing lunch in order to use restrooms on a different floor; students late to class after lunch if they have to use the restroom; more students wandering the halls; ADA compliance issues; potentially creating contractual issues with the teachers union by changing working environments if bathroom monitors become necessary; and — most importantly — an overall disruption of teaching and learning.
But Wait, There’s More…
Ragsdale, Plowman, Turner and Byrnes brought these same concerns directly to Hull at the Wildwood Building Committee meeting the following night — January 19 — held on ZOOM.
The Building Committee discussed the matter for over an hour, but — ultimately — Hull’s decision will stand, although Ragsdale did mention that a citizen-petitioned warrant article to fund the construction of age-appropriate restrooms for Wildwood students at the Middle School could wind up on the 2023 Annual Town Meeting warrant. (February 3 is the deadline for warrant articles.)
Hull explained that he was concerned about spending essentially $1 million to retrofit offices into restrooms, and then having to remove them five years later.
“$1 million, while certainly not as expensive as all the other options on the table, we’re still talking about a million dollars to provide a 5-year fix. That concerned me in terms of the overall budget I’m putting together,” said Hull.
“It seems to me that to go through that kind of effort and cost for a 5-year temporary solution is not in my estimation advisable,” continued Hull. “There’s an opportunity to use the existing restrooms across from the cafeteria. I recognize the key here is maintaining segregation of the PreK and K to the middle school students. I know Superintendent Brand and Asst. Superintendent Ruggiero will have conversation with their staff about that. I think that’s the far better approach.”
“From my perspective, there’s been considerable conversation over the past few years about issues at the Wildwood school. Students and staff have been moved out. While it’s not an ideal situation, they’ve been in a better environment than in the Wildwood. I think by taking this next step, to reduce number the number of locations to two (West & Middle School), across from each other, improves things still further. None of these options are perfect. That’s why we’re pursuing a new school. I think this is responsible from a fiscal standpoint and provides an appropriate environment for the students to be educated,” concluded Hull.
Hull confirmed that Public Buildings Superintendent George Hooper was told by the Town’s Plumbing Inspector that the Middle School’s bathroom fixtures would NOT need to be adjusted for Wildwood students. School Committee members, however, disagreed, and shared specific building codes (CMR 521). Hooper said he double check with the Plumbing Inspector, but wondered if the cited codes were for new construction and not applicable in this situation. School Committee member Stephen Turner noted that, regardless of the codes, the reality is the toilets, sinks and other fixtures aren’t age-appropriate and may cause students to avoid using the restrooms, resulting in accidents and increased anxiety.
Hull said it was his understanding that Wildwood students are currently being accompanied to the restrooms by staff in the three schools they’re housed in now. Principal Kate Bissell responded that this was only partially correct — PreK students are escorted, but Kindergarten students do independently leave the classroom and use the restroom. Bissell said they would be unable to do so under the new restroom proposal.
Hull likened the decision of whether to retrofit school restrooms to bathrooms at one’s home.
“Then there’s the sheer idea of having to customize fixtures of PreK and K students,” said Hulll. “It’s not common for parents to customize their bathrooms to accommodate toddlers and then re-customize them when they’re no longer toddlers. It’s something we all have to go through as parents. From that perspective, I don’t think this is an insurmountable circumstance.”
Principal Bissell responded that using a bathroom with your own child is different than in a school setting, where restrooms need to be accessible for students to independently use without adult support.
In response to issues raised by School Committee member Melissa Plowman, Public Buildings Superintendent George Hooper believed the town was not realizing major savings by closing the Wildwood. The only notable saving is heating oil. The 1.5 FTE employees have been reassigned to other schools. Hooper noted no major work has been put into the building since 2012 since the town knew it would attempt to replace it.
In response to a question from Paul Melaragni, Hull said his new plan to not construct restrooms would save roughly $961,000. The entire plan was originally budgeted up to $1.1 million. (The School Committee underestimated the amount of the cuts at its meeting the night before.)
Hull added that, with the approval of the Select Board, he intends on redirecting $100,000 from the town’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to purchase playground equipment for Wildwood students.
“When I looked at the big picture here, with all the budgets, the million dollars for this short term [need], I had some real concerns about,” repeated Hull. “I know decisions I make aren’t always popular, but I’m trying to present a budget that’s reasonable and not escalating at a pace we can’t sustain.”
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