By Steven Fletcher
As city and school officials wrestle with how they'll use Fuller School for in the coming years, one thing is certain, they say.
The nearly half-century old building, constructed by the Archdiocese of Boston as the former St. Peter's High School, needs more and more maintenance and care as it is, and will need significant repair and renovations for its next use — whether as a school or some other purpose.
The city spent almost $230,000 to clean, heat, and keep the lights on at Fuller School in fiscal 2011, according to Public Works Director Mike Hale.
And those costs won't abate so long as the city's Public Works Department has to keep maintaining the aging, mostly vacant building.
Without a plan for the building's re-use, said Director Mike Hale, Public Works will keep patching Fuller, but patching only goes so far.
"If we dump more money into it, we need to understand what the end use will be," Hale said.
Right now, Fuller is not covered by a capital improvements plan because the city hasn't hammered out what will happen to the former elementary school. Without a direction for the building, Hale said the city can't make major investments in the school — and that's a decision that should come sooner rather than later, said Hale.
Public Works maintains the parts of Fuller that the School Department currently uses for administrative offices, transportation, and a pre-school.
Hale and city facilities manager Jim Hayfe said the department maintains what it can, but keeping up with the rest of the 175,000 square foot building isn't easy.
Parts of Fuller's infrastructure are almost beyond patchwork repairs, they say.
The school's pneumatic thermostat system is one of those. Hayfe said Public Works has almost lost control of the thermostats; heat, he said, is pretty much an on or off kind of thing.
Fuller's fire alarm system is another. While the alarm system works, it's made of outdated parts and Public Works can't expand the system as it is now. A new alarm system, said Hayfe, would cost more than $150,000.
"You can just put so many Band-Aids on it," Hayfe said.
The Fuller School is made of several brick and concrete blocks, layered in almost haphazard "urban renewal." While the Archdiocese built the school facility, St. Peter's closed after just a few years — and a few years later, they turned the school over to the city.
The city renamed the building the Milton Fuller Elementary School, and it's been known as Fuller School ever since, used in varying capacities until 2008, when the city closed the doors on what was then a building housing all of the city school system's fifth-graders.
At that time, the city started examining how and where it taught Gloucester's younger grades. It underwent a "Planning for Effective Learning Communities," or PELC, study a year or so beforehand. That study, with parent and community input, found the city preferred a local "neighborhood" system.
While closing Fuller, the 2007-2008 School Committee also spent about $3 million on modular classrooms at the neighborhood schools and dispersed the Fuller students back to the five elementary schools. But that has left Fuller where it sits today - vacant and, city officials say, deteriorating inch-by-inch, system-by-system.
Over the last two years, the city had hosted a series of "listening posts" on the future of city facilities, including Fuller School. Last year, Mayor Carolyn Kirk brought quasi-governmental agency MassDevelopment into the picture. The agency developed a few scenarios for re-using the building's site, presenting its findings last week.
But, before the city can do anything with the building, the School Committee has to declare it as a surplus facility as an elementary school.
The committee's working through that process, said Chairman Jonathan Pope, but there's still a lot to do.
While the committee considers Fuller, school and city officials are also looking at building a new school facility on property around the current West Parish School in West Gloucester.
That project has been estimated at costing upwards of $30 million, with the Massachusetts School Building authority reimbursing 48 percent of the cost if it backs the city's project. The MSBA has, in the meantime, accepted Gloucester into its project "eligibility period," meaning that Gloucester has around eight months to put together a building committee and fund a feasibility study — pegged at a cost of up at $500,000, and reimbursable by the state at the same 48 percent rate, but only if the city follows through and builds the school.
From a sheer cost standpoint, Hayfe said renovating Fuller School may not be that much cheaper
Public Works put out an initial cost estimate of around $5 million to retrofit Fuller for a school. But that $5 million, he said, would essentially just provide for a needed new roof, fix some of the windows, doorways, and correct plumbing problems.
"It opens up a can of worms," said Hayfe, "(Once we start) we're obliged to meet code standards,"
Fuller, he said, needs a new heating system, thermostat control, plumbing, kitchen equipment, etc.
Hale said the department doesn't have an estimate for what it would cost to completely renovate Fuller, and a project designed to fully renovate it as an elementary school, according to current codes and standards, would exceed the $5 million estimate.
The city, Hale said, will have to decide if it's worth renovating Fuller, or building a new West Gloucester School.
"Even if you did all of that you would still have an (elementary school built as a Catholic boys' high school," Pope said.
Pope and committee member Melissa Teixeira said they would like to know if the renovated Fuller School could provide as capable a facility as a proposed West Gloucester school.
But, before the School Committee makes any decision about the property, Pope said, it has some work to do first. As of last week, he said, the School Committee still had no answers about where to put the offices it keeps in the Fuller building.
The School Committee has a preliminary plan to move the pre-school over to Pathways For Children site on Emerson Avenue and build an addition onto the current Pathways facility, but all of that's tentative, said Pope.
The committee, he said, also has to figure out where to relocate the buses, transportation department and the administration offices before it can turn over the school.
"We don't, as of right now, have any answers as to where we could move these people," he said.
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.