, Gloucester, MA

January 31, 2013

Editorial: Charter school site offers opportunities for city, schools

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The issue confronting Mick Lafata — who owns what, until a few weeks ago, had been a bustling Gloucester Community Arts Charter School – is purely a business matter.

While one can argue that the state Department of Education, which provided the charter’s funding, pulled the rug out from under Lafata when it essentially forced the school’s trustees to surrender its charter, the city certainly has no liability or reason to want to bail out the 2 Blackburn Drive property owner.

And Lafata seems to understand that. “I have to chalk this up as a company came in, they signed the lease, they went belly up, and I’m stuck with the lease,” he says — a lease on which he’s now more than $1 million at $35,000 a month over what would have been its full five-year term.

But while that would be far too costly for the city or its taxpayers, and any deal would have to be negotiated downward, it’s also frankly hard to understand why city and school official aren’t expressing some interest in making use of what physically looms as the city’s newest, best-designed and best-built educational facility — and a very rare commodity to make its way onto any real estate market.

So as local officials look into options for a costly West Parish school building project without any sense of whether it has any support among residents — and while the future use of the former Fuller School building remains very much up in the air — they should at least put aside their childish distrust of all things charter and consider the opportunities this facility would seem to offer.

At the very least, the charter building could be an ideal home for Gloucester’s pre-school, whose lack of a new home, officials say, is one of the issues clogging up any movement on Fuller.

But beyond that, it’s hard to picture that the charter facility couldn’t also serve as a potential magnet school if the school district wants to pursue that route — or even as a more viable elementary than the current Veterans Memorial, which has 200 students, essentially the same capacity of Gloucester Community Arts.

In that vein, the charter could also serve as an alternative to Plum Cove, which has 211 students, or, with a bit of redistricting, East Gloucester, which houses 259, perhaps freeing those buildings, especially Veterans, for other city use or potential sale.

Ever since GCACS founders received their charter in 2009, many city and school officials have dug in defensively, touting the current “neighborhood school” elementary lineup as virtually untouchable. And while city school officials, with help from the district’s nonprofit Gloucester Education Foundation, has taken great math, science and innovation strides at O’Maley Middle School, the city’s elementary schools remain skewed and need redistricting anyway, with far too many of Gloucester’s lower-income — or free lunch-eligible —students concentrated at Veterans and Beeman, and enrollment still declining, a cry out for consolidation and other changes that the School Committee seems content to ignore.

Perhaps Lafata can sell or lease the charter school site to a private school or education program; perhaps he can cut a deal with a developer who would convert the former Cape Ann Medical Center site into commercial space. If he can, and recoup more of the money he’s out, then all the more power to him.

But before this property goes by the board, city officials should consider if they would have any use for all or part of a 200-or-so student school building that’s move-in ready.

It’s frankly hard to imagine they don’t.