SHREWSBURY – Solving the ongoing overcrowding problem at Shrewsbury High School (SHS) won’t happen overnight.
But the School Committee is hoping its actions at its March 15 meeting will be the first step.
The committee unanimously voted to send a statement of interest (SOI) to the Massachusetts School Building Administration (MSBA) expressing the need for a major expansion project at the high school. In addition, the committee voted to direct Superintendent Joseph Sawyer to reach out to Town Manager Kevin Mizikar requesting the Select Board sign on to the SOI.
The SOI is just the first action in a process that could take several years to bear fruit. According to Assistant Superintendent of Operations and Finance Patrick Collins, approval is not a guarantee.
“We know from experience if you are fortunate to be selected … and the odds are not great, it is a six-year process from start to finish,” said Collins.
According to Collins, in 2022, the MSBA approved 10 out of 54 construction requests.
“If the MSBA decides they want to work with you to solve your problem, then they would invite you into the first step, the eligibility period,” he said.
Collins mapped out a process that includes forming a project team, commissioning a feasibility study and a schematic design. This is followed by the town approving funding for the project, and then the detailed design and actual construction.
“Getting approved doesn’t mean something will be happening this fall with construction at Shrewsbury High. It just doesn’t work that way,” said Collins.
If an expansion project is ultimately approved by the MSBA, Shrewsbury would be eligible for reimbursement from the state up to 80% of the cost of the project.
In the past, Shrewsbury has worked successfully with the MSBA on construction of the new Beal Elementary School and Sherwood Middle School. Earlier this year, the MSBA announced Shrewsbury would be receiving an accelerated repairs program grant in the amount of $1,890,419 toward the $3.9 million cost of replacing the windows at Oak Middle School.
Study recommends expansion
Built in 2002, SHS was built with a design capacity of 1,475 students. At the time of its construction, SHS enrollment was 1,135 students. However, in four years, enrollment had jumped by 33%, to 1,513 putting the high school over design capacity. Enrollment reached a peak of 1,885 in 2020, putting the building at 28% over design capacity.
The district recently received the final draft of the space study it had commissioned from the architectural firm LPAA. In its study, LPAA identified the high school as the top priority in the district when it comes to capital investment.
Specifically, the study recommended an expansion of the existing building.
The overcrowding problem is expected to only get worse in the coming years. According to estimates done by a demographer and included in LPAA’s report, SHS’ enrollment is projected to dip slightly, to 1,792, by 2031. However, according to Collins, those numbers are likely low, as the number of Shrewsbury students expected to be able to attend Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School is low following changes to admission policy.
“When that (report) was done, that demographer didn’t know … wouldn’t have any knowledge of any change in the admissions policy of Assabet Valley Technical High School,” said Collins. “We typically would be sending 120 students there. But where that will not be happening in the future, you could envision that those students will stay in our school district and that [projected enrollment] 1,800 students could be back around 1,900 students 10 years from now.”
School district officials had hoped to gain a bit of space relief from Assabet, with the committee sending a letter to Assabet, asking for a meeting to discuss the possibility of joining the district as an official member town.
Citing its own space issues, the Assabet School Committee voted at its most recent meeting not to expand its district to include new member towns. Shrewsbury officials expressed disappointment that they were not afforded the opportunity to state their case.
“We were disappointed to learn that a decision on this matter had already been reached without an opportunity to discuss the possible benefits to both parties,” said School Committee Chair Lynsey Heffernan. “The Shrewsbury School Committee will continue to seek ways to provide rewarding high-quality opportunities to our students within our district, but fundamentally the committee firmly believes that interested students from Shrewsbury should have access to the robust programming that only a vocational school can provide. Right now, that opportunity has been effectively eliminated for our high school-aged students based on a change in Assabet Valley’s admission policy.”
At the March 15 meeting, Heffernan stated that the overcrowding issue was preventing the high school from offering programs, such as biotech, information technology and other hands-on classes in the vocational-tech realm.
Any expansion at the high school would include facilities for some type of vocational education opportunities. But Heffernan admitted those would be limited in scope.
“We heard, loud and clear from our community at Town Meeting last year about the need and desire for some type of vocational programming,” she said. “I don’t want, in any way, to suggest that an addition to the high school is providing the full panoply of a vocational high school. But we have no space for anything of the sort.”
No expansion for Assabet Valley district members – for now