GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 30, 2013

W. Parish plans go for state approval

MSBA will weigh design for $36 million project

By Times Staff
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Gloucester’s proposal for a new West Parish Elementary School will face a key hearing Wednesday when the Massachusetts School Building Authority Board will decide whether to back what now looms as an overall $36 million project for a building that could house up to 390 students.

The MSBA board, which helps steer communities through costly school construction projects and allocates reimbursement rates based on cities’ demographic and economic data, is poised to consider both Gloucester’s plans and a Beverly proposal for Briscoe Middle School at its regular meeting, set for Wednesday at 10 a.m. at MSBA headquarters, 40 Broad St., Boston.

Dan Collins, MSBA board secretary, emphasized that the meeting is open to the public.

City officials are hoping that the MSBA will give Gloucester the green light for a building based on the “preferred” design that the city’s School Building Committee submitted to the state board last month.

That proposal, coming on the heels of a $500,000 feasibility study and a report from the architectural firm Dore & Whittier released last May, calls for a new school that would be built on the current West Parish site and would include 16 classrooms.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk said over the weekend that the facility could handle up to 390 students at an average of 24 students per room — higher than many current class sizes and larger overall than an initial 2012 MSBA recommendation that a new school have a capacity of 355. The current enrollment at West Parish — pegged at 380 students and more than 70 staffers at the time of the initial MSBA recommendation — is now about 360, school officials said.

Kirk noted that the projected cost of the project — which would, if approved, be reimbursed by the state through the MSBA at a rate of 48.7 percent — includes the estimated cost of relocating West Parish’s students, teachers and staff for the anticipated two-year duration of the building project.

While city and school officials initially considered the idea of constructing a “new” West Parish in Becker Field behind the current building, while students and staff were still inside, the Dore & Whittier report strongly cautioned against that approach.

With that in mind, city and school officials are now considering where to relocate the current West Parish population while the new construction is going on. School officials put out a formal request for proposals seeking offers of such a facility and are considering the former ITT Rule building and property, which has been shut down since 2010, in the Cape Ann Industrial Park on Kondelin Road.

Kirk emphasized, however, that any temporary site is still very much under consideration, “and there are a few options we’re looking at.”

Kirk said the Wednesday MSBA meeting would not represent the West Parish project’s final green light. The city would, among other things, still have to secure and submit its share of the financing — expected to be around $18.7 million, considering the state reimbursement rate.

That local funding share, however, is expected to be cleared only through City Council approval, through borrowing and general funds that would not require a Proposition 21/2 override and, thus, not face a citywide referendum, city officials have said.

While drawing widespread support within the Gloucester schools community, the project remains controversial in many quarters — partly over plans to fund it without going to city voters for approval and, partly, because a number of residents and officials, notably former mayor and current councilor-at-large Bruce Tobey, have urged the city to look toward renovating the former Fuller School and reopening that as a consolidated school building that could house more than one of the city’s five current elementary districts.

The West Parish project would accommodate only the West Parish district. The current school, which has been overcrowded and beset by a number of heating and other utility issues over the last three years, was opened in 1948.

School officials, however, have stood by their desire to maintain smaller “neighborhood” elementary schools under the current alignment.

The City Council had already approved a $60,000 appropriation to be matched by the School Committee to underwrite a 20-year capital planning perspective on the elementary school system.