, Gloucester, MA

April 17, 2013

Letter: School project needs 'change of course'

My View
Bruce Tobey

---- — As I took my seat at the council table before our April 10 meeting, I saw a memo from the mayor before me.

My eyes flashed straight to its last paragraph, which stated that “the city of Gloucester needs to make an informed decision about how to address this important problem, and the administration looks forward to a more comprehensive review and analysis of options, and a formal plan, all of which is inclusive of citizen input.”

“Hallelujah,” I thought to myself, “we’re going to do a full study of the condition and needs of all our elementary school buildings, including Fuller School, before we jump into the construction of a new West Parish School.”

Then I checked the subject line of the mayor’s memo and saw it was an announcement of her rejection of a Board of Health recommendation that the City join the Northeast Mosquito Control District. The mosquitoes were safe, but the integrity of the city’s capital planning processes was not. The joke was on me.

The latest development in the ongoing saga of the future of Fuller School unfolded at that same meeting – a request that the City join the School Department in commissioning a $120,000 comprehensive review of the City’s elementary schools so “we will have a solid grasp of and a blueprint for the district’s entire elementary school program over the next decade.”

But the scope of the study is limited to Veterans, East Gloucester, Beeman and Plum Cove elementary schools. Moth-balled Fuller School is not included; so much for comprehensive.

I urge folks to take a drive up to Fuller School and do what I recently did myself – take a good look at it. What is structurally one of the most solidly-built buildings the city owns is being systematically destroyed by willful neglect. A once vibrant facility that, in its time, served so well the kids of Gloucester’s downtown Wards 2 and 3 now more resembles the set of an urban scene in one of those post-apocalyptic movies.

This is wrong, and voters should not stand for it.

A city’s elected officials are fiduciaries. Their community has charged them with their utmost trust and confidence in managing and protecting its property and finances. City councilors and school committee members are failing in that trust so long as we stand on the sidelines and acquiesce in the on-going destruction of Fuller so it can be consigned to some unidentified future use.

There should be no doubt: if we stay on the course we are on, Fuller will in fact be the unfixable wreck that some wrongly contend it now is.

And the problem is all the more serious given the use of modular classrooms in our remaining suburban small elementary schools, once but no longer called neighborhood schools – every day, those modulars are moving closer to the ends of their abbreviated lives.

How can we craft a comprehensive plan for their replacement if Fuller School remains arbitrarily and artificially out of the picture? How can Fuller be considered a surplus building that the School Committee no longer needs if its members have hedged their bets with words to the effect of “unless we need it while we’re rebuilding West Parish”?

If we stay on the current path, I fear two things. The first would occur in early autumn, when the City Council, with many of its members likely seeking re-election, might be called upon to approve borrowing for a new West Parish School.

Rather than being guided by a comprehensive plan that would sanction this move as a sound first step in a long-term plan of good investments, they would instead be presented with an earnest crowd of neighborhood parents and school children seeking an emotional and a political vote, rather than one driven by hard business judgments, a data-driven process, and broad community input.

And that would be followed, perhaps within several years, by the realization that the modulars have reached the end of their ropes and, with Fuller no longer an option, the need to confront a pressing and very expensive crisis.

That is an avoidable crisis, but only if we craft a solution that lays a solid foundation for decisions on the future configuration of Gloucester’s elementary school system.

That requires a change in course.

Fuller School needs to be a part of the solution, and the misguided efforts that seek to prevent that inclusion need to stop — now.

Bruce Tobey is a former four-term mayor of Gloucester, a former member of the Gloucester School Committee, and a current at-large member of the Gloucester City Council.