Following budget cut, Pembroke revisits future of elementary school re-build

The Pembroke School Board meets on Tuesday, May 7, 2024

The Pembroke School Board meets on Tuesday, May 7, 2024 JEREMY MARGOLIS—Monitor staff


Monitor staff

Published: 05-08-2024 3:11 PM

Modified: 05-08-2024 4:44 PM

A massive budget cut sustained by the Pembroke School District in March has thrust the future of a long-planned elementary school building project into uncertainty.

The plan to renovate or rebuild the kindergarten through fourth grade Pembroke Hill School has been in the works since 2019. The school board had initially planned to bring the project before the community for a bond vote this year, but elected to postpone the vote until 2025 due to significant projected increases in the district’s operating budget.

Then, at Pembroke’s annual meeting this spring, voters rejected the school’s proposed budget for next year of $33.8 million, instead opting to keep it roughly level with this year’s budget, at $30 million.

The surprise vote – which has forced district leaders to eliminate 27 positions next year – sent a message to board members that the Pembroke Hill building project, which had been projected at approximately $40 million, would likely fail to garner enough community support.

“I can’t see any universe where bringing a $40 million bond next year is a good idea,” school board chair Andy Camidge said Tuesday night.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first time the school board has publicly addressed the future of the project since the March vote. The committee tasked with leading the project last met in February, committee and school board member Melanie Camelo said.

On Tuesday, committee members ultimately agreed they should host a meeting to gather community feedback on the future of the school. That session could be scheduled as early as this summer, they indicated.

The Pembroke Hill School has been slated for renovation since it merged with the formerly kindergarten through first grade Village School in 2019. To accommodate the additional students, the Hill School has rented a two-classroom modular unit and repurposed storage for staff offices and instructional space.

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The building – originally built in 1962, with sections added in 1962 and 1969 – has a variety of space issues and other deficiencies, according to a 2021 report. For instance, some classrooms are smaller than state guidelines and the gymnasium is also used as a cafeteria and event space.

An initial plan to renovate the current building was scrapped in favor of a total re-build, though a location had not been settled upon, according to meeting minutes from February.

Board members expressed varying opinions on Tuesday about the exact course to chart now, including whether to continue working with architectural and construction management firms that had already been retained.

“I know we’re not in anybody’s wildest dreams . . . able to bring this forward next March, but I also think the work can’t stop,” said board member Kerri Dean.

“This is years down the road now, and I just don’t want anyone involved to feel like they’re just wasting their time,” board member Gene Gauss countered.

The board, along with Superintendent Patty Sherman and Hill School principal Wendy Gerry, also discussed how next year’s cuts of two classroom teaching positions and a prized science, technology, engineering, art and math integration program will impact crowding in the building both immediately and long-term.

“We now have a few open spaces that we didn’t have before,” Sherman said.

Gerry is still in the process of developing a clear picture of building allocations for next year, she said.

Sherman said Pembroke will also ultimately need to give its contractors a sense of the project’s timeline.

“They’re not just going to hang on,” Sherman said.

Meanwhile, the longer the project remains on hold, the more expensive it will become, board members cautioned.

Ultimately, the board decided, the next step was to gain community buy-in.

“Community engagement in my opinion needs to happen well ahead of time,” Camelo said. “We haven’t done it.”