Amid some parents' and teachers' concerns about West Parish Elementary School's viability even in the short term, the head of the city's Department of Public Works says his department is doing all it can to keep it up and running.
West Parish remains a safe environment in which to teach and learn — at least for the foreseeable future, he said.
"I think the school, with the amount of maintenance we put into it, is sufficient to teach and learn in," Public Works Director Mike Hale said.
With a $300,000 increase in the school facilities budget this year, Public Works will complete some needed repairs on school buildings, including West Parish, Hale said.
While those repairs will keep the building standing for the coming years, Hale said West Parish has just about exceeded its life expectancy as an elementary school, and without some major investment things aren't going to get any better.
Some parents, like Lisa Groleau, head of the West Parish PTO, have said in the past that the school has persistent problems with heat and internal air quality.
And teacher Cynthia McNamara wrote a letter to the Times last week citing several problems with the building, including locks on classroom doors that don't work, mold in the ceiling tiles, a leaking roof and poor air ventilation. The issues, she said, make educating difficult.
West Parish housed 380 students this past school year, more than any other local elementary school, and that population is crammed into a building that, while expanded over the years, was built in 1948. The building, its students, teachers and staff had some rough stretches this past year, notably in January when the heating system failed in several classrooms, driving students and teachers into alternative "classrooms" that included the stage of the school's auditorium,.
"There's no question that's the elementary school in greatest need of investment," Hale said.
But, for now, Hale said, that investment will come in repair, not renovation.
"We're going to continue to make investments that makes sense in the short term," Hale said. The Massachusetts School Building Authority, he said, will dictate what will happen with West Parish in the long term.
The city is working its way through the MSBA's school building process toward potentially building a new school on the West Parish site. In May, the council approved a $500,000 loan authorization for a feasibility study for West Parish school. If the MSBA votes at the end of the month to move the project forward, the city will undertake that study, with an eye toward considering either renovation, repair, or building a new school.
Critics of the proposal, however, have suggested that the city should look toward consolidating its five elementary schools in conjunction with any plan rather than simply replacing a single elementary school and keeping the current district structure.
This summer, Public Works is planning to repair each of the air quality systems in West Parish classrooms, and patch up the roof for the third time in three years. In terms of mold in the building, Hale said the state Department of Public Health has been through each of the elementary schools and hasn't found anything systemic or hazardous. It's either not mold, he said, or it's a localized issue and isn't hazardous.
Public Works, he said, made some modifications to the heating system and can't expand much on the plumbing or electrical system. The building, he said, isn't any different from other facilities of its age.
"In general, it's no different than any other facility of that age, and isn't dangerous to work in," Hale said.
What public works can't fix right now, he added, is the space issue.
West Parish School is a hodgepodge of original construction and additions put on by parents throughout the years. It's a building stretched to its limits, Hale said, before Public Works took over maintenance of the school facilities three years ago. Before that, the School Department handled the maintenance and often deferred it to keep up the quality of its educational program.
Jonathan Pope, chairman of the School Committee, conceded that the district's maintenance spending has been cut, along with other aspects of the schools' budget, over the last 10 years.
"We did the best we could with the money we had," Pope said.
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, ext. 455, or at email@example.com.