, Gloucester, MA

May 17, 2013

Editorial: Consultant's grim findings reopen need for school ideas

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Unsalvageable.

That, in essence, is the finding of the city’s school building architectural consultant not only for the Fuller School building, but for the current, 65-year-old West Parish School as well.

But while those reports may, to some extent play right into the hands of those city and school officials who wanted to let Fuller shamefully slip into such disrepair that it could never again house schoolchildren — and they wouldn’t have to heed residents’ calls for its reuse – the fact that it’s now seen as potentially useless for perhaps any other venture as well throws a real curve ball into the city’s and School Committee’s current school building scheme. And that’s driven home even more so by Dore & Whitter’s finding that the city’s desired site for a new West Parish — on the same grounds as the current one — may not be viable, either, even as that school also falls into greater and greater disarray.

With that, school and city officials must now come to grips with two realities:

Their plan to build on the same West Parish site while perhaps temporarily shifting the students there to a moderately renovated Fuller is a non-starter — thanks in large part to their letting both schools essentially fall to rot and ruin.

The likely need to now raze the Fuller building for any use – whether as a public safety facility, a potential YMCA, a commercial property or, yes, a consolidated elementary school — creates a scenario in which all of those options should be wide open for a rebuilding on the site.

The real shame of this “benign neglect, or worse” — as Councilor Bruce Tobey very aptly put it — is that school officials who thought they were being smart in ignoring any maintenance or even basic operational repairs at Fuller are now about to throw their own school district into temporary chaos.

With Fuller now unavailable for even temporary use, school officials may well have to shift some West Parish students to the soon-to-be-closed St. Ann School and/or to the former Gloucester Community Arts Charter School — far from the “neighborhood school” concept for West Gloucester and Magnolia kids that the city is supposedly trying to protect. And even those stop-gap plans can only work if the city can reach reasonable lease arrangements with the Archdiocese of Boston and with GCAS site landlord Mick Lafata, who had already been talking to city school officials about housing his virtually new facility to house the city’s preschool.

But for all of Dore & Whittier’s dire findings, this damning buildings report carries a subtle message that should be good news to city taxpayers, and it’s this:

With elements of the West Parish school building project — one being advanced without any sign of broad-based resident input, or signs of widespread support — now thrown up for grabs, including a potential new school site, school and city officials must now look at other options.

And with the schools’ declining enrollments, those should include some type of consolidation plan that, perhaps, could include a new centralized elementary school on the Fuller site that could house perhaps two or three current school enrollments and thus create the flexibility needed to address the city’s long-term educational needs.

By some counts, the Dore & Whittier architectural consulting report may have created something of a crisis at a key point in the development of a long-term, comprehensive Gloucester education plan. But a crisis often brings with it some glowing opportunities, and this report should do that as well.

For all the grim findings regarding these two school buildings, this report should awaken city and school officials to exploring a fresh, new approach that can truly address the district’s and taxpayers’ realities of today, and true needs for tomorrow.

Let’s hope that proves to be the case.