Study panel: Own schools, self-sufficiency key

HOLLIS – A study committee looking at whether the town should remain in the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School District is recommending that nothing be done until the schools become overcrowded, which is expected to take another 12 years.

The group recommended that in 2020, the district should consider building a combined high school and middle school in Brookline and moving sixth-graders from the upper elementary school into the middle school. By 2035, with elementary, middle and high schools in both towns and construction bonds paid off, officials should consider dissolving the cooperative, the report says.

The selectmen appointed the study committee in March in response to a population study by another town committee.

This would accommodate dips and increases in student enrollment in the short term, according to the report. In the long run, the recommendation would leave each town with its own K-12 schools, avoiding the tax burdens on both towns associated with dissolving the cooperative now.

“Each town would have its own schools and be self-sufficient,” committee Chairman Doug Cleveland said of the option the committee is recommending. “It will be less expensive for Hollis, looking toward buildout in 2050.”

Cleveland said if the towns wait until 2035 to dissolve the cooperative, they will have paid off bonds raised to build the combined high school and middle school.

The report, which considers the costs and benefits of expanding the current school buildings in the district, follows almost eight months of research and meetings. It was released at a public meeting Thursday night.

It identifies four options: doing nothing and dealing with problems as they arise; withdrawing from the cooperative school district; building a new, combined middle and high school in Brookline on Captain Samuel Douglass Academy land; or reconfiguring the grades in the high school and middle school.

Options are based on population projections by the New England School Development Council, the Hollis Strategic Planning Committee, and state analyses.

Taken together, they reveal decreases in school enrollments in elementary, middle and high school populations over the next five to eight years.

The numbers are likely to increase in the future, however, giving rise to the need for more space.

Cleveland said in Hollis, school enrollments have been decreasing for several years, while in Brookline, some enrollments in some grades have been going up.

Overall, however, enrollments in the cooperative district and in Hollis elementary schools are dropping, he said.

The report to the selectmen emphasizes the theoretical nature of the committee’s findings, recommending that the SAU school boards undertake a similar review every several years.

The economy is a big unknown, as is the housing market, Cleveland added, describing the report as an “educated judgment” based on available data.

Cleveland said that school district could deal with overcrowding in the short-term by adding portable classrooms or building additions. But it also faces limitations: some school buildings have no place to grow, given the location of leach fields, athletic fields and parking lots, while others are already dealing with deep, low-yield wells that produce barely enough water for daily use.

In addition, a boundary dispute at the current middle school in Hollis must be resolved, according to the study committee.

The committee also opposes expanding the high school cafeteria to deal with overcrowding, according to the report.

Cleveland, who passed the baton to the SAU school boards on Thursday night, said the committee wants the school boards to use the report as “food for thought” rather than a blueprint.