A $500,000 loan authorization for a feasibility study that would look at how to renovate, repair or rebuild West Parish School faces a public hearing before Gloucester's City Council tonight, with a council approval looming as the last step the school district takes before the Massachusetts School Building Authority will move the study forward.
Without the authorization, the West Parish School Building Project could be stopped in its tracks.
Paul McGeary, chairman of the Council's Budget and Finance Subcommittee, said the authorization is a required step and a moderate risk. While he said he believes the state authority will vote favorably after it extended the eligibility period for the project in January,the city could bear the entire cost on its own if the project isn't approved.
"If MSBA decides not to fund it, we're on the hook and have to swallow the entire cost," McGeary said. "If they do, they'll pick up 48 percent."
As for the scope of the school, he said, that's up to what the study determines the district needs for the West Parish area. In April meeting minutes, Mike Hale, Gloucester's public works director, said that after years of questionable maintenance, the building is beyond repair. School and city officials have pegged the cost around $30 million for a new school, with MSBA on target to reimburse the city for some 48 percent of the cost.
McGeary's committee recommended councilors approve the funding for the study in April. Committee member and Ward 2 Councilor Melissa Cox also said that, without council approval of the study, the project will go nowhere.
The district first started looking seriously at replacing West Parish in 2009, said Superintendent Richard Safier.
That ended up on hold for a few reasons, including the city prioritizing a $5 million, MSBA-reimbursed project that replaced or repaired roofs of Veterans, East Gloucester, Plum Cove and Beeman elementary schools, along with O'Maley Middle School.
The MSBA, he said, invited the city to re-start the West Parish project in January, and voted it into the eligibility period.
"They know that West Parish needs work," he said.
Councilor Bob Whynott said Monday he believes it's ridiculous for the city to pay $500,000 for a study that tells it what it already knows. He said he believes the city's leaning toward building a new school, but the study itself is unnecessary and wasteful.
"I think it's a stupid rule, but it's the law," he said.
He added that he's not voting against the project, but would vote "no" in protest of the rule if it won't kill the authorization.
The authorization satisfied the two criteria that gets the district to the feasibility phase, said School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope.
He said the city has to have bonding in place to hire a project manager, and an MSBA-approved firm to do the study. While it's a bit of a gamble, Pope said, he expects the MSBA to approve the project.
"Unless we go off the ranch somehow, it's unlikely they wouldn't approve it," he said.
The city has until November to approve the funding.
The study itself will focus solely on the needs of the area served by West Parish School, said Pope. It would not look at other potential projects.
Other building renovations — such as a potential rehabbing of the former Fuller School — aren't in the pipeline and would be placed on a wait list. Also, Pope said, the city can't keep putting "Band-Aids" on West Parish, where the heating system failed in several classrooms in January, forcing classes to the auditorium stage and elsewhere.
The study, said Safier, will present three options — either renovate, repair, or new construction of West Parish. It will also explore the building's educational program and needs, the initial space, existing conditions, development requirements, and, by the end, will produce a preliminary design, budget, and scope.
Safier said the district is looking at either pre-kindergarten to fifth grade or kindergarten to fifth grade for the building, with seating of between 400 and 500 students. That will accommodate West Parish's current student population, while the district, Safier said, could fill any remaining seats through a lottery or with students moving into the district through school choice.
Right now, said Pope, the 64-year-old school doesn't have space for special education or counseling. It needs two large assembly rooms, one functioning as a cafeteria, and a number of classrooms need to be brought up to modern standards.
It's not the only building in the district that's worse for the wear though, Pope said. Whether through repair or renovation, the city's other buildings are in rough shape, too, he said.
"The reality is that there should be sort of a long-term plan to be doing upgrades for all of these buildings," Pope said. "None of them are without issues," he said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.
If you go
What: Hearing on spending $500,000 on loan authorization for a study of which would be best, to renovate, repair or rebuild West Parish School.
Who: City Council.
When: 7 tonight.
Where: Kyrouz Auditorium, City Hall.