During its Nov. 20 meeting, Natick School Committee members were asked to approve a fiscal year 2025 capital budget plan of $2.25M (see 5-year plan embedded below). Line items of $400K for a district-wide wireless network and $575K for HVAC systems raised few or no eyebrows, but $200K for a new pre-K playground for a few dozen kids at the East School did.
While the town has invested heavily in a playground and sports facilities at Connor Heffler Park adjacent to the school, that park is town-owned. “We’re not allowed to restrict access to that playground during school hours,” Interim Natick Public Schools Superintendent Bella Wong told the Committee. In fact, when the school system put up signs to cut off public access so that only the pre-school kids could play there, it was told that wasn’t permitted.
So the Natick Public Schools system is looking for a new small and fenced-off playground that the pre-school kids at the East School can use during school hours.
Natick Public Schools Director of Finance Matthew Gillis says there is an above-ground oil tank set for removal that would free up space for a small playground. Playgrounds typically last for about 20 years, he added later.
While Natick’s main pre-school facility is at the high school, the former East School (at East Street and Rte. 9 West) is now used for 5 overflow pre-K classrooms, plus after-school programs. The original idea for having pre-school classes there was for 2 to 4 years, Wong said, and the program is currently in year 2. “I think it’s easy to say it will go to year 4,” Wong said. “It might be too early to say how much longer, but then we are asking for an elementary pre-school study [as part of the FY25 capital request], and that will help you answer the question better.”
Factors such as when a new or renovated Memorial Elementary School might come about would play into how Natick handles its pre-school facilities down the road.
School Committee member Elise Gorseth expressed discomfort over paying for a playground located on land the School Committee doesn’t control and that might only serve its purpose for a couple of years. “There’s got to be a better solution to this problem,” she said.
Pre-school students do have access to the gymnasium at East School, but the goal of course is to let them play outside, too.
School Committee member Matt Brand raised the idea of whether the School Committee could go in with the town on paying for the new playground, and Gillis indicated that idea could be broached.
Looking ahead, School Committee member Julie McDonald said one thing that made her wary about the new playground proposal is that another $200K is requested in FY26 for a playground study. She said she’d rather just build the playground than fork over a similar amount of money for a playground study: “I think we have a sense of what the playgrounds are that we need.”
Separately from the proposed playground expense, School Committee member Kate Flathers questioned another $200K earmarked in FY25 for design work on a Natick High School field replacement. While acknowledging that field needs work, she’d like to see a field utilization study from the athletic department to get a good sense of which fields are used for which sports and how many participants use them, etc.
McDonald also raised questions about a $250K placeholder for a long-term capital plan and enrollment study, suggesting that perhaps only an enrollment study is needed given a study was conducted a few years ago regarding the school system’s buildings.
The School Committee voted unananimously in favor of the FY25 capital plan.