The “memorandum of understanding” between Gloucester’s School Committee and the office of Mayor Carolyn Kirk ceding control over the use of Fuller School to the folks at City Hall is no surprise.
In fact, logic held that the School Committee, rightfully or not, has viewed Fuller as a piece of “excess property” for months — or since talks first got serious about what still seems an ill-conceived single new elementary school aimed at replacing the current West Parish. The only surprise is that it’s taken this long to get such an agreement in place.
In effect, state officials had reportedly balked at earlier steps by the city to push the School Building Administration for a new school project funding, largely because it perceived the city as already having plenty of viable space at Fuller. Now, with Fuller deemed “excess,” and with the city shutting down heat and otherwise allowing Fuller to go to rot, the path seems clear toward a new elementary school building — whether resident taxpayers want it or not.
Yet one provision in the memorandum raises a question that the city will need to address, regardless of whether Gloucester school officials get the state’s green light to build a new West Parish, or to merely carry out extensive renovations to the current facility. That’s the notion that Fuller, by necessity, may have a year or so of school use left, whether city officials want to admit it or not.
That necessity would come if or when the city actually begins work on any West Parish proposal. Presuming that a new school would be built on the same site — and there’s adequate space to do so behind the existing building — the question then arises as to whether a new school construction could safely be carried out behind the school, while students continue to occupy the current building. If so, there’s seemingly no problem; if no, then Fuller would be the only school building that could handle West Parish’s roughly 380-student population — the largest in the city.
The answer should be simple. Presuming the new-school choice gets the state’s nod — and that seems likely, given West Parish’s significant physical defects at that point — there is no way that a new building could be constructed on the same grounds without causing significant disruptions and posing a variety of safety hazards for students and West parish adults if school is allowed to remain in session.
A glowing example of that sits just a few miles away and few short years in the rear-view mirror, where Manchester Essex officials — essentially with no other option — carried out construction of their magnificent new middle/high school with the old school in place. Despite their best efforts, there were problems galore — from a lack of parking and any outdoor space, to construction materials raising the curiosity of students, to neighborhood horror shows with cars, students and staffers alike encroaching on residents’ yards and space.
Gloucester officials, of course, may not want to take the steps needed to allow Fuller to welcome in the city’s largest enrollment of elementary students. To do that, understandably, would mean some taxpayer dollars to bring the school up to current codes. And that will, of course, open the door to questions as to why, if the city must renovate Fuller to give current West parish students and teachers minimal cover, it’s somehow not feasible to carry any such renovations further and set the stage for a longer reopening.
That, frankly, is a very good question. It is, however, one that city school officials will have to face and be prepared to answer. For if the city is to build a new West Gloucester School on the West Parish site, temporarily housing those students at Fuller will be the city’s only safe, truly viable option.
In that vein, it’s good that both the School Committee and the mayor at least recognized that potential in their memorandum of understanding.
Now, they should help us all understand why even a renovated Fuller can only be a stopgap solution.