Published in the October 21, 2016 edition

MELROSE — The effort to deal with a growing school population moved forward this week when the aldermen approved borrowing $400,000 for designing and planning modular classroom space at the Winthrop and Hoover schools and renovating the Horace Mann School.

The elementary school crunch is being felt at the smaller schools in the city. Currently, the Lincoln and Roosevelt schools are the “big” grade school and there is a belief that in the future a new Winthrop could be one too. The neighborhood school concept, however, would keep the Hoover and Horace Mann facilities as “small” schools indefinitely.

Available space at the Hoover and Horace Mann is extremely limited, and non-existent at the Winthrop.

Under the plan approved by the aldermen Monday, there would be three customized modular additions at the Hoover, two at the Winthrop (and a new grass playground too), and because of exterior property issues, a Horace Mann renovation that would include a music/art room, a better library and a larger administrative suite.

All this is expected to eventually cost over $4 million, but city officials have an aggressive timeline calling for everything to be built and open by the beginning of the next school year. The money would be borrowed and paid back over 20 years.

“Population increases are extremely hard to predict and track,” Mayor Robert J. Dolan said in a release. “The City, in cooperation with the schools, has made many modifications to the current school structures, including building new classrooms, renovations, etc. We have now reached a point, due to a dramatic increase in the school age population in the last two years, that it is time to act.”

Neighborhood meetings on the project will be held, Dolan explained this week. The design work is expected to be finished by December.

“(The school population growth) is not a bubble,” said the mayor. “This is a legitimate trend.”

The modular classroom plan, combined with the renovations at the Horace Mann, would solve the space crunch problem for at least another decade, Dolan explained.

“We began this process well over a year ago with a demographic study, a presentation of several options by our superintendent, a community meeting, a review by our Permanent School Building Committee, a recommendation by our School Building Committee as well as a review and recommendation by the Melrose School Committee. What was clear was the community’s…commitment to our current to our current expanded neighborhood school model that continues the K through 5 elementary schools as well as the grades 6 to 8 middle school,” the mayor said in the release.

Modular classrooms have come a long way from the old trailers thrown together as an afterthought, the mayor said at a meeting this week. “They have advanced to the point where they are customized, permanently attached and quite impressive,” he continued.

And they are a much more inexpensive alternative to new additions (the cost of which are “astronomical,” Dolan said), and to completely new schools.

The plan, now approved by everyone who needs to approve it, is “the best plan for students and for administrators,” Dolan said. “It protects the clear desires of myself and others that fifth graders should remain in elementary schools, that eighth graders should remain in the middle school and that Melrose High School should remain a 9th-12th grade community. I would also argue that the plan provides additional school improvements such as ADA compliance, open space, and advancing educational equity in all our schools,” the mayor continued.