By Richard Gaines
---- — The architectural firm hired by the city in March to create a proposal for winning financial school building help from the state has delivered a discouraging report in slides and words, but is proceeding to develop options with costs for relieving the overcrowding of West Parish School.
Within a few weeks, Dore & Whittier is expected to present the first firm estimates and options for consideration by residents and the city before the School Building Committee for the West Parish School expresses a preference — a decision officials now expect to submit to the Massachusetts School Building Authority early next year. If it gains state approval, the city would then have 120 days to secure its share of the financing.
The state agency’s contribution is roughly 49 percent, with the city on the hook for the remainder. As to the level of that remainder, Dore & Whittier are not even giving guesstimates.
The most optimistic scenario, officials said, is to have an agreement with the state in about a year, and a new school for 2016 fall term. But the worst of the problems — all carefully described by consultants, as preliminary, but laid out with blunt force are that:
-- Built as a parochial high school in 1965, the former Fuller Elementary School building is not only unsuited by size and design to become a school again after five years of abandonment, and may be unsalvageable for any role, due to rot, decay, structural failures, mold, mildew and asbestos.
-- The 65-year old West Parish School, built with a wooden roof and jury-rigged with additions twice in its long life, is now below multiple building codes and filled to overflowing with exposed electrical wires running along hallways, is not much better off, and that there is little reason to believe rehabbing this wreck of school will turn out to the preferred alternative.
-- The team of architects from Dore & Whittier has cooled on the likelihood that Becker Field, the back lot behind West Parish School, will physically allow the construction of a new West Parish School while the students remained in the old one.
-- If the replacement school must be built on the site of the existing school, the students, an estimated 380, would need to be removed to another, or other sites for the two years required for construction, and at this point, the problem of where to send the student body does not have an obvious solution.
“I feel like the grim reaper,” conceded C. Bradley Dore, a principal at Dore & Whittier, who led a 90-minute presentation to the City Council Tuesday night. Referring to the Fuller building and the West Parish school, Dore said, “Neither is not really good; both have wholesale issues.”
School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope said the possibility that the best option will turn out to be rebuilding on the same site of the existing West Parish School is a new complexity to consider.
“When they first looked at the site, they were comfortable about getting the new building on the site,” he said. “It’s just in the last few days that they began to doubt that.”
Dore said wetlands and other topographical problems have come to light as the “back 40” of the West Parish site was put under intense analysis. But he added and emphasized that it was far too early to conclude that a new West Parish School can definitively not be built behind the old one, even if a two- or three-story building with elevators is required. And ruling Fuller out of the picture for even temporarily housing the West Parish students during construction has raised new hurdles.
“The preferred scenario is not to move the kids,” said Pope. “This (moving them) is a problem we’re just starting to get a handle on. There are possibilities — St. Ann’s, and the charter school are options you’d want to investigate.” St. Ann School is planning to close at the end of the current school year; the Gloucester Community Arts Charter school abruptly shut down in January, and city and school officials have visited it with an eye toward moving the city’s preschool, now based at Fuller, into the charter site.
Pope added that it was also possible to transfer some West Parish students to other elementary schools and even school the rest in modular units modular “even though I’m sure that would horrify some people.”
“A year from now,” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk in a telephone interview Wednesday, “we should have a plan with funding in place, and with two years of construction, we are looking at occupancy in September 2016.
“The good news,” she said, “is we can do this without a debt exclusion override. We don’t quibble about putting $25 million into water projects. We have to provide a safe environment for these kids.”
The shocking revelation of the presentation Tuesday night was the degree of degradation of the former Fuller School, to which many in the community hold strong emotional ties, and have continued to believe might be restored for a second life as a city school, or even as an outlet for the West Parish students should the site limitations in the back yard force the new school on the rubble of the old.
That notion was effectively shattered by the slides and commentary from Michele Rogers, Dore & Whittier’s project manager, who explained that while the Fuller building is too large, 180,000 square feet for a school of optimal size of 65,000 square feet, the classrooms are too small as are the elevators while the cafeteria is too large.
“The roofs are pulling away from the walls; walls are leaking and cracked, and water has seeped into the re-bar and has rusted it, there’s water in the basement,” Rogers said. To a slide of mildew in the basement, Rogers added, “I’m not sure what else lives down there.”
Phased out in 2008, except for the pre-school, the Fuller building was effectively written off as useless, said an angry Councilor Bruce Tobey.
“What we’ve seen are the consequences of benign neglect — or arguably worse,” he said. “I found this presentation to be a shocking indictment.”
Rogers’ report on the West Parish School was hardly more encouraging than the preliminary findings at Fuller. As the slides clicked by, she noted there is “cracking brick, missing control joints, the windows are OK, walls are bad, the wood roof does not meet code, there is antiquated electrical, water infiltration” and a gym that doubles as a cafeteria whose rotation “dictates the schedule for the rest of the building.”
The council also took action on related initiatives. It killed an order by Tobey for a non-binding municipal referendum question this fall on whether to support a new West Parish School, and approved a $60,000 appropriation to be matched by the School Committee to underwrite a 20 year capital planning perspective on the elementary school system.
The building committee, appointed by the mayor, has 14 members, all city and school officials except for three school parents and Lisa Groleau, president of the Parent Teachers Organization.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.