The city's notification from the Massachusetts School Building Authority that the MSBA would only approve moving forward on a "new" West Parish School that would house 355 students should have prompted a basic response from city and school officials.
They should have said: "Thanks, but no thanks."
They didn't, of course. Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Superintendent of Schools Richard Safier, no doubt hoping to keep some hope alive for a West Gloucester school project, instead signed off on the preliminary conditions for moving forward, including that the agency would only fund a new or renovated school that wouldn't even meet West Parish's enrollment needs for this fall.
But the truth is, this level of project would not meet anyone's needs, from current West Parish students and their families to city officials to — most importantly, and most oft-forgotten — city taxpayers who would have to foot the bulk, even with the state's 48 percent reimbursement.
So, before this train gets too far down the tracks, the city should put the brakes on any spending for a $500,000 "feasibility" study even before the MSBA takes another step toward a project that's really not feasible for anyone.
There is, of course, a context to the MSBA's findings. The lower-than anticipated West parish enrollment projections — a slap, in some ways, at Superintendent Safier, who wisely pushed for a study that could have envisioned a school for 500 students — are tied to the city's still-declining elementary enrollments, which have fallen by 24 percent since 2002 and continue on that course.
Despite a number of innovative new programs added to city schools, many just since Safier's 2011 arrival, Gloucester continues to lose students to other districts through the state's school choice program. And — despite its own multiple missteps and an ongoing PR efforts to undermine it — the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School expects up to 200 students at the third-year, public and independent school this fall when it adds a kindergarten and first grade this fall to complete its Grade K-8 profile.
Given those figures, the MSBA "believes that the proposed design enrollment will position the district to efficiently meet space capacity needs throughout future enrollment variations," according to the authority's letter to the city.
If West Parish's enrollment further declines, those numbers would add up — if, of course, the idea was simply to build a "new West Parish."
But that should be far from the city's or even the School Committee's goal.
For his part, Safier recognized the need to try to bring back or draw in students from other districts under the school choice formula, perhaps also offering space in the new school to parents from other in-city districts as well.
But, as we've noted, a new school only works if it addresses the city's declining enrollment in a more aggressive manner — by consolidating at least one or even two of the existing schools into a new building.
If nothing else, the MSBA's enrollment limit for West Parish should provide further fodder for the fact that Gloucester does not need five elementary school buildings. And it certainly can't even think about building five new ones, one by one, over the coming years while resisting all efforts — and all potential savings — that can be gleaned from consolidation.
The city, in short, should now answer the MSBA's letter with one of its own.
If the state agency mandates a 355-student school for West Parish, the city needs to return to Square One, and look at other alternatives.
Translation: "Thanks, but no thanks" — and skip the feasibility study until future notice.