Parker Charter School math and science teacher Dawn Crane never suspected that she might one day be able to teach a lesson on vernal pools using the floor of her classroom. But when she arrived at school on the morning of Jan. 25, she discovered that a 32-gallon trash can collecting water from a leak in the roof had overflowed during the night, flooding the entire room. This was just the latest in a series of floods and puddles caused by a failing roof at Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens.
This winter’s catastrophic leaks have left the school with no choice other than to replace the entire rubber-membrane roof this summer. The project, estimated to cost $750,000, will be paid for with a combination of borrowing, reserve funds, and an 18-month fundraising drive called the “Third Decade Fund,” which refers to the length of time the school has been in operation.
Dominic Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association (MCPSA), said that facilities costs are the biggest financial challenge for charter schools. He explained that charter schools do not have access to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, a quasi-independent state authority that subsidizes anywhere from 31 to 80 percent of new construction or major renovation costs at public schools. The authority is funded by 1 percent of state sales tax revenues, drawn from the 6.25 percent sales-tax collected by the state. But, Slowey said, the MCPSA is not advocating charter school access to the state authority. “Massachusetts charter schools have become nimble at figuring out ways to finance their facilities,” he said.
Since 2005, every public charter school in Massachusetts has received $893 per student annually from the state to help cover facilities costs, but according to the MCPSA, that amount is not nearly enough for most charters to make their annual rent or mortgage, insurance, and utilities payments. Parker Principal Todd Sumner said that annual carrying costs for the building average $1,425 per student, leaving the school with a facilities shortfall of about $210,000 per year. He added that the shortfall is made up from district payments for students, intended to cover educational programming only, which results in less money for teachers and critical items such as technology improvements. “Our salaries are a lot lower than many of the school districts that our students come from,” Sumner said. “But it’s a labor of love; our teachers believe in the mission.”
According to Sumner, the leaks are worse in the winter when snow and ice thaw into ponds on the flat roof. He believes that shoveling snow off the roof has been a major contributor to its failure, and heavy snows during three of the past six winters have resulted in the need to shovel the roof. The wing of modular classrooms, where Crane’s room is located, is the leakiest section of the building. The modules’ roofs are joined by seams that can easily separate, and additional seams around ventilation units on top of the modules contribute to the problem. The modules and their roofs are 17 years old, coincidentally the same age as the roof on the main section of the building.
Sumner said the school’s maintenance workers patch the roof every summer, and he credits them with keeping the building as safe and dry as anyone could, but it has become clear this winter that the workers are fighting a losing battle. A capital-needs assessment in 2013 identified about $2 million in needed facilities expenditures over the next 10 years. Based on the assessment, the school began contributing about $150,000 annually to a capital reserve fund. But the largest expenditure identified in the assessment, a new roof, was predicted to occur in 2022. With that expense coming so much sooner, the school will need to use other financial resources to avoid draining the capital reserve fund.
The school is currently refinancing its existing $2.4 million debt from the 2006 building purchase and expansion (see history of the builidng below), and it will add another $250,000 in debt for the roof. The last piece of the financial puzzle will come from the Third Decade Fund, an 18-month fundraising drive that the school hopes will raise $500,000 to help fund capital improvement projects and operating expenses for the next 10 years. The annual average number of families with children attending Parker is only about 300, but Sumner said that contributions also come from alumni and their families, as well as friends of the school, trustees, staff, and local businesses.
Fundraising at Parker has been very successful in the past. Ten years ago, the school raised more than $900,000 to help purchase the building. A recent fundraiser, coupled with a 20th anniversary challenge grant and the sale of the school’s domain name to a nonprofit called The Parker Foundation, allowed the school to complete upgrades to its technology infrastructure and purchase classroom laptops for students in grades seven through 10. The Third Decade Fund, started in the fall of 2016, has already raised more than $130,000. “This first project of Parker’s third decade, a new roof, is not very exciting, but we need to rally around it,” Sumner said, adding, “It’s not like adding a swimming pool—we’ve already got one in our upstairs hallway.”
History of the Parker Charter School building
Frances W. Parker Charter Essential School opened in 1995 in a former communications bunker with iron doors and no windows on Jackson Road in Devens. The building was leased from MassDevelopment, which encouraged Parker to move to a more suitable location, a former Fort Devens elementary school built in 1954 and located nearby at 49 Antietam St. In 2000, MassDevelopment renovated the school and installed a new roof, and Parker moved in. Six years later, Parker bought the building so that it could expand its classroom space and increase enrollment. Soon after that, the school purchased modular classrooms from the Wachusett Regional School District, where they had been used during a school renovation. The total cost to purchase the building and dismantle, move, and install the modular units came to $4.6 million. The facility has had no major renovations since that time. The school currently serves 400 students in grades 7-12. This year’s enrollment includes 19 students from Harvard and two students from Devens.
Parker employs unique leak-collection system
An improvised leak-collection system. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)
Parker School Principal Todd Sumner praised the school maintenance team’s creative “leak-collection system” used in classrooms and offices throughout the building. The system consists of a false ceiling tile with clear plastic hoses inserted through it to collect water from tarps above the ceiling. The water flows through the hoses and out to a foundation drainage system under the building. Teacher Dawn Crane told the Press at a Jan. 30 visit, “It’s like having a Zen waterfall in my classroom.”
Crane told the Press this week that soon after our visit, the leak-collection system could no longer handle the volume of water coming from the roof. She said that maintenance worker John Marshall made a hole in the wall so the drainage hose could empty directly to the outside. But when temperatures dipped to near zero one night, the hose froze, and a large trash collection bin (the kind on wheels) had to be brought into Crane’s classroom to catch the water. She added that there are now two main leaks in the room and another just outside the door, and overflows from the buckets and bins have caused leaks in the room below, where floor tiles have begun to come loose.