The Natick School Committee (SC) on Nov. 15 voted 5-1 to close Johnson School after a motion put forth by SC Vice Chair Cathi Collins to “direct the superintendent to close Johnson Elementary School no later than June 30, 2025.”
To remain open, Johnson would have needed a town commitment of over $3 million to address the building’s needs for extensive systems repairs, and to make the building accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
During the over 4-hour long meeting during which the future of the 80 year-old K-4 school was decided, Superintendent Dr. Anna Nolin presented a plan in which she recommended a 3-year phased closure of the Johnson facility. This plan would coincide with an application with the Massachusetts School Building Authority for work on Memorial School, a future project which is expected in scope to be either a major renovation or a total rebuild project.
Check with Natick Pegasus to watch the meeting in full. The public access channel should have the meeting posted soon.
Nolin said, “A phased closure would allow families, and staff, and students to slowly transition…there’s a lot of divergent opinions about what the next best phase for students and families would be. We would go directly to families, and guide that closure” as students move toward integration into other Natick elementary schools.
A downward trend
Nolin pointed to downward enrollment trends as one reason against investing in a building with significant repair needs. Throughout the meeting Memorial School loomed large as another facility that requires work. Nolin noted that closing Johnson would allow the district to focus on Memorial, a facility that she said must be renovated or rebuilt no matter which way the SC vote went on Johnson.
SC members brought up concerns about the district’s ability to integrate Johnson students into Memorial, Brown and Lilja schools and still maintain small class sizes.
“The only thing I can say to you is that all signs point to the fact that we can, and they’re low for the next four years…I cannot predict if there’s going to be some sort of housing surge that is in the offing,” Nolin said, giving an example that since 2017 there have been 13 new developments in town which she said resulted in the fairly low number of 200 additional enrolled students since 2017.
The people speak
About a dozen residents took turns at the microphone or via Zoom to address the SC before their final vote. One resident said that although the potential closure of Johnson has been a part of planning meetings for years, “… it will always feel rushed to some. For me, this is solely about the Johnson School building and its viability moving forward. It would take a lot of money over the coming years to bring Johnson up to code, and that would mean significant tradeoffs elsewhere across the district.”
One resident in advocating for Johnson to remain open brought up issues of equity. “Johnson is a walking school…it has historically had the first or the second highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students of all the elementary schools in town…students from low income backgrounds are not being bused into Johnson. They live in that neighborhood.”
With the SC’s 5-1 vote to close Johnson, the most immediate action will be that the current kindergarten class enrolled at Johnson will be its last. Going forward, interviews with current K-3 Johnson families will commence, and interviews with staff relative to placements within the district will take place.
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