By JOHN HOWELL As the director of school finances, one would expect Robert Baxter to pay attention to revenue and expenses. He does that, but he says there's more to it than money. It's students. On a visit to Vets Middle School on Thursday, Baxter
As the director of school finances, one would expect Robert Baxter to pay attention to revenue and expenses. He does that, but he says there’s more to it than money. It’s students.
On a visit to Vets Middle School on Thursday, Baxter identified enrollment as the No. 1 problem. He aims to address that by making schools more inviting, and he and those working with Kevin Oliver, director of school buildings and grounds, have started with Vets.
The work has already started. School corridors are brighter and the Vets’ Hurricane blue gives classroom doors a uniform look. During the April break, work will start on replacing floor titling that is not that old but was hastily installed and is cracked and has irregular bumps in places.
Not everything is going to happen at once. The work is dependent on Oliver’s crew and, as Baxter knows, funding. The money side of the project, he believes, can be handled within the existing budget.
Baxter is taking a fresh approach to school upgrades, which he says have customarily been “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Rather, by concentrating efforts on Vets, he’s looking to make some immediate systemic changes that will change school culture and make it more of a place where parents want their kids to go and kids want to go.
The vision is no clearer than what is planned for the cafeteria. The room has the feel of a factory with rows of long tables, fogged windows and three giant stainless steel air ducts that were recently installed to meet air flow exchange because of the pandemic. The plan calls for removal of the wall separating the cafeteria from the corridor that would allow for additional natural lighting. At the east end of the room, windows would be extended upward for even more lighting.
In place of the long tables that Baxter thinks would be useful in other schools, he is looking for smaller tables and areas where students can gather around in groups. He’s looking to transform the room from an institutional cafeteria into a café. High on the list is the kitchen and the narrow “scary” doors leading to the serving counters.
“When you walk in you know what prison looks like,” he said. Rather than limp along with aging equipment at three kitchens – Pilgrim, Winman and Vets – Baxter suggests replacing the equipment and appliances at Vets and making that a central kitchen. This could be a big ticket item costing $400,000 to $500,000, but Baxter says it could “pay for itself in a year” in savings to repair and piecemeal replace equipment at all three kitchens.
Open to ideas and suggestions, Baxter and Oliver are going ahead with re-purposing what was storage space off a former boiler room into a resource room where students can meet one-on-one with teachers in alcoves taking them out of the classroom. Another room that serves as a break room for teachers would have access to the adjoining kitchen via a boarded up counter window. Baxter said teachers could get coffee and drinks that could become a revenue source.
What was once the “small auditorium” is now even smaller. It has been subdivided with easy access to the cafeteria. One space, Baxter suggests, could become a gallery for student work and a space for small performances. The second half of the former auditorium is already being used for classes.
With most of the work being taken on by Oliver’s crew, Baxter doesn’t see revisions as requiring additional budget appropriations.
“This is not something we’re spending extra dollars on,” he said. Yet, he adds, it couldn’t happen without “the ton of heart” crews are putting into the job. About 85 percent of the targeted improvements for the first level of the school have been completed since they started in February.
He feels parents and students will measure the success.
He wants to hear parents say, “we want to send our kids to this school.”