Whether the West Parish School building project brings renovation of the current facility, or construction of a new school, the state's school building authority will only fund a building that fits 355 students.
West Parish Elementary, with 380 students this past school year, is the biggest and seen as the most crowded elementary school in the city. But the Massachusetts School Building Authority is basing its capacity number on a 24 percent drop in Gloucester's elementary school enrollment over the last 10 years, a decline the state expects to continue.
City school officials initially asked to build a 450-to-500 student school on site, both to attract choice students and alleviate spacial needs across the district's elementary schools. But Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Superintendent Richard Safier accepted the new enrollment number last week.
While the number came as a bit of a shock, said School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope, it's hard to argue with.
The MSBA's calculations, Pope said, are exhaustive and rarely wrong. The agency takes into account birth rates and kindergarten enrollments as well as building permits and upcoming and existing housing development. That enrollment number sets the parameters for the West Parish School project, provided the MSBA votes to continue Gloucester's project at the end of the month.
"They do the numbers, (they) say this is what we'll pay for, and that's where you're at," said Pope.
MSBA will reimburse just under half of a school building project. In total, the West Parish project has been projected to cost $30 million to $40 million.
In a letter sent to Safier, Mary Pichetti, the authority's director of capital planning, said the MSBA recommended a 355-student West Parish because of declining enrollment throughout Gloucester's elementary schools.
Since 2002, enrollment has by fallen 24 percent — or 442 students — from an elementary total of 1,819. District-wide, the enrollment has fallen by roughly 1,000 students since 2002, with elementary school enrollment seeing the largest dip. By 2017, Pichetti's letter states, elementary enrollment will dip to roughly 1,260.
"The MSBA believes that the proposed design enrollment will position the district to efficiently meet space capacity needs throughout future enrollment variations," the letter states. The city's school system, continues to lose students, both through the state's school-choice option, and to the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School, which, heading into its third year in September, is adding a kindergarten and first grade to complete its K-8 grade profile.
The city school district, Pope said, sought additional space in the West Parish Project to ease spatial needs across the elementary schools. Safier had said the district planned to have an intra-district lottery for spots in the new building.
With fewer seats, Pope said, the district may have to consider minor redistricting, though that hasn't been discussed by the committee or district officials yet, he said.
But the MSBA takes into consideration the district's entire elementary school capacity, and if space exists in other schools the district may have to reassign students, Pope added.
"They look at the whole district, and say we're not going to build a big school in West Parish if you've got room in Lanesville," Pope said. "That's the logic."
The district's last redistricting, Pope said, came when officials closed Fuller School, which had housed fifth graders from across the city. While students from Fuller went to all elementary schools, a good chunk of them ended up at West Parish, Pope said.
Vacant space in the Fuller School, Pichetti's letter states, wasn't part of the equation.
"While some excess capacity was identified at the Milton L. Fuller facility ... this excess capacity was not included as part of the calculation of the design enrollment for the proposed project ...," her letter states, "This is because the Fuller facility has been closed since the (end of the) 2007-2008 school year and the district reports local support of designating the facility as surplus and thus unavailable for redevelopment as an educational facility."
It's not an active school, said Jim Duggan, city Chief Administrative Officer, adding that the MSBA is working with the district's neighborhood school model, not dictating how the district should invest in its buildings.
"They were not going to dictate to the district that (it) needed to put the building back into circulations," Duggan said.
At the end of the month, Duggan said, the MSBA will vote on whether to move the project forward, adding that be believes all indications are positive.
The City Council approved a $500,000 loan authorization for a feasibility study in May. If the MSBA votes the project forward, that study will start in the spring of 2013, with the council's final vote on the project scheduled for August 2013, Duggan said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.