GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 10, 2013

City eyes charter site for preschool

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — The city’s outreach for offers for a building to house the school district’s preschool, administrative offices, a preschool and the schools’ transportation department, has drawn one response — one which city school officials are considering.

That building is the former Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, and property owner Mick Lafata offered his building as the pre-school’s and offices’ new home through answering the city’s formal request for proposals, or RFP.

The approximately 22,000-square-foot building sits at 2 Blackburn Drive, with Lafata initially offering rent at a base bid of $342,878, and that price increasing 3 percent in a fourth year and another 3 percent in the fifth year of the proposed contract.

The School Committee could also choose a rental option for $420,678, which would include janitorial services and supplies, electric and gas costs, snowplowing and sanding, landscaping, water and sewer costs, and scheduled maintenance, according to Lafata’s RFP proposal.

“My place would be perfect for them,” Lafata said. “I want to do what I can to help out and make this happen.”

In a letter to the city, Lafata wrote that another preschool has inquired about renting a few of the classrooms in the former charter school, which abruptly shut down in January under state Department of Education financial pressure and the surrendering of the school’s charter by the GCACS Board of Trustees.

Lafata told the city he could arrange for the preschool and other clients to rent portions of the building if the entire area was too much for the preschool, administrators and school transportation operation, which use about 17,000 square feet in the Fuller School building.

While some School Committee members have expressed concerns about the parking at the school, Lafata wrote in his letter to the city that he could handle the requested number of buses.

“I’m not sure how to measure for the buses, but know that I could handle 15 full size and 10 half size buses overnight as requested,” Lafata wrote.

According to Lafata, Superintendent Richard Safier and a handful of city officials toured the school Wednesday. Safier did not immediately return calls for comment Thursday.

The School Committee will mull over the offer, then make their recommendation to the administration. The administration, should they support the idea of renting the building, will then seek funding from the city, according to School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope.

While getting the request for proposals out early was meant to create a way for the city to budget in the solution, Pope said it would come down to the city adding facilities money.

“It meets a lot of our criteria. I’m assuming it’s laid out in a way that wouldn’t require too much change,” Pope said of the building, which was expanded and converted into a school in 2010 after previously serving as home to the Cape Ann Medical Center.

“There’s classroom and there’s offices and it’s handicap accessible and it’s got all new utilities and technology,” Pope said. “I just don’t have any lead right now where the amount of money (Lafata) is asking fits into the budget process.”

Aside from approximately $36.4 million Kirk had budgeted for schools in her proposal for the next fiscal year, which was submitted to council Tuesday night, a separate sum of $3.9 million under the mayor’s budget is designated toward “school facilities” in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The city, not the School Committee, decides how to spend the school facilities money, with $600,000 of it already set aside for building repairs and physical building work that would make the school buildings more secure. Funding for a school security officer at the high school would fall under the $36.4 million school budget, however.

Pope said he had also called administrators at St. Ann School when its Board of Trustees and the Archdiocese of Boston announced that school’s pending closure at the end of the current school year, asking the school to respond to their request for proposals. But, he said, St. Ann School declined the offer.

“They didn’t really feel that they could,” Pope said. “They’ve got their own level of bureaucracy to deal with.”

If the city fails to budget in rent money for a new space, Pope said, the committee may have to consider renovating at least the preschool section of the Fuller school building, saying he has “serious concerns” about the building’s condition.

“We can’t open up in September as a preschool with the way the building is now,” Pope said. “If the city is not willing to spend the money to rent a suitable option, then we’re going to have to make some improvements on the space the preschool is in.”

City councilor Bruce Tobey has adamantly pushed for the schools to renovate and use the fuller building rather than stand by the school committee’s declaration of the building as surplus. He said Thursday that the School Committee and council need work together toward a solution and come up with the most cost effective solution, considering repairing Fuller versus constructing a new building or renting.

“The building’s got problems because it isn’t being maintained, but that’s stuff you can deal with,” Tobey said. “There’s some serious analysis and plans to be formed, and maybe we could do it together.”

Tobey reiterated that, while the School Committee will recommend their favored option to the council, the councilors will decide on funding.

“We have to sign the check,” he said, “and hence this has to be a partnership.”

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.