Fuller School began the new year like every year since 2008 — mostly vacant and facing an undecided future.
But while new Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope said Monday he didn't see the former parochial high school having any permanent educational use, he added that, before the district declares Fuller "surplus" property, it has to find answers to a number of questions.
That means finding a place for district administration offices, the city's pre-school, which still uses Fuller space, and a place to put West Parish school students if building a new school in West Gloucester were to include either tearing down the current West Parish School first, or carrying out construction that would disrupt use of the existing building.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk, following up on proposals laid out during her third-term inaugural address on Sunday, said Monday she'd ask the committee to declare Fuller surplus. She said she plans to send a formal request to committee members before the end of the month, adding that the surplus declaration is the first domino that has to fall before the city begins redeveloping Fuller, and building a new school in West Gloucester.
Fuller School is owned by the Gloucester Public School District. So the School Committee has to declare the school surplus before the city can do anything with it. The city closed Fuller as a school after it had housed all of the city's fifth graders in the spring of 2008. The Archdiocese of Boston had built the school as the former St. Peter's High School in the 1960s.
Asking the Massachusetts School Building Authority to finance a new school in West Gloucester will be a tough sell with Fuller still available and vacant, said Kirk.
The MSBA, she said, could reimburse the city for nearly half the cost of a new school project.
But, she said, "it's highly unlikely that the MSBA (will reimburse) 50 percent of the cost as long as the School Committee's holding onto Fuller School."
The district, said committee member Kathy Clancy, has held onto Fuller as a place to hold West Parish students if the school was ever deemed unusable. Without Fuller, she said, the city wouldn't have a place to put the roughly 380 students enrolled at West Parish. Last November, the school committee said they would consider giving up Fuller School if the city moved forward on a new school in West Gloucester.
Now that the city's looking to do that, Clancy said the district would only need Fuller if construction of the new school required knocking down the existing West Parish.
Kirk said what happens to West Parish will be up to a feasibility study on the new construction. That study marks the first step in the MSBA's school building process.
But the study itself doesn't come cheaply, either. Kirk said the city will ask the City Council to put $500,000 toward the study.
She said the city would like to build the new elementary school in the woods behind the playing fields at West Parish while the current school would remain open. That would parallel the building project for the $49 million and now three-year-old Manchester Essex Regional Middle/High School which was built to within less than two feet of the old school in some spots, before the older building was later razed.
If that can happen, said Kirk, the construction won't displace any students.
But that still leaves the district offices and the pre-school, said Pope.
The district, he said, won't take action until it figures out where to put them.
He acknowledged, however, that it's time to get serious talks on the matter moving — and the sooner that happens, the better, he said.
"We're certainly not dragging our feet," said Val Gilman, School Committee vice chairwoman.
Gilman said the committee has to look at the fiscal and educational impacts of consolidating several neighborhood schools into Fuller before it can declare it surplus.
But, she said, initial district looks at consolidation set out a few concerns.
Moving some of the city's five neighborhood schools into the Fuller building or another single facility wouldn't save the city much money, she said. Plus, she added, the community supports the neighborhood schools rather than a consolidated elementary school.
"Any savings are insignificant when compared to the disruption," said Clancy.
She said Superintendent Richard Safier's office put together a rough cost analysis for consolidating three elementary schools. That analysis, she said, proposed a bare-bones set up for a 700-plus elementary school student population at Fuller.
The savings? About $1.3 million. But the costs for rehabilitating Fuller would be more than four times that, Clancy said — with up to $5 million needed to bring Fuller back online as a modern-day educational facility.
Consolidation also doesn't meet the city's education needs, said Pope. Also, he added, the committee's decision needs to be based on the best education for the city's schoolchildren, not the city government's bottom line.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.