, Gloucester, MA

July 15, 2013

Mayor, councilors must hear, heed residents' calls on Fuller

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — It’s been four months now since a consultant hired by the city outlined its cold, hard position that neither the current West Parish School building nor Gloucester’s intentionally-neglected Fuller School building may be salvageable for future use.

Now, Tuesday night, the City Council will host an open public forum that, quite frankly, city and school officials should have held long ago.

The hearing, ostensibly to hear out residents regarding what they’d like to see done with the Fuller School site and/or building, is hardly the first regarding a general Fuller use. That issue and hearings along those lines have been held over the last two years.

But the council’s hearing tomorrow night, however, will include the idea of reusing the Fuller site as a consolidated school site on the table — a thought that Mayor Carolyn Kirk and members of the School Committee have refused to consider. Indeed, other sessions have focused solely on reports that either only considered potential development for the building or at the site, or that presumed the School Committee’s long-held position that the current Fuller building is inappropriate for any school use — even though the city’s own pre-school remained on the complex right through the recently concluded school year.

The forum set for Tuesday night at 6:30 in City Hall’s Kyrouz Auditorium won’t yield any City Council votes or decisions. But it should indeed go a long way toward outlining the wording of a non-binding referendum on the Fuller site planned for this November’s city elections.

And it would be nice if, once again, councilors paired that with another closely related referendum — one that simply asks whether residents support the continued pursuit of building a new elementary to essentially serve only the West Parish population on the current West Parish grounds.

Why? Because the mayor and school officials continue to work with the state’s School Building Administration on the new West Parish school project without ever going to a referendum of Gloucester voters, and with no plans to seek one either. And if even a non-binding referendum on the current course at West Parish shows residents adamantly opposed to that project, that would directly affect choices regarding the future use of Fuller, perhaps as the site of a consolidated elementary school that the city and its still shrinking school enrollments need.

There are, in fact, a number of proposals in play for the Fuller site and that should be up for discussion tomorrow night:

A centralized complex that could house all of City Hall’s offices, including those now exiled from downtown in the Cape Ann Transportation Authority on Pond Road. That option begs what would become of the current historic City Hall, which continues to be renovated.

A public safety complex that could house the city’s police and fire departments and be built with or without other facilities on site. Yet there are questions whether that would provide the best citywide emergency access.

A new home for the Cape Ann YMCA, which Mayor Carolyn Kirk has quietly discussed, and which could involve a land swap with the Y’s current building for a potential, municipal downtown parking garage.

And finally, a consolidated elementary school facility that could house up to three of the current school populations under a single, centralized roof.

The condition of the current Fuller building is clearly an issue. In their push for a new West Parish — a plan that would address the needs of just one school “neighborhood,” and set the stage for needing up to four other new facilities in the years ahead, city and school officials have shamefully let Fuller fall to rot in a scheme to clearly eliminate it as an option for the state building authority.

Yet that only covers the current building, and city officials may well want to look at whether razing the current Fuller buildings and building a new, consolidated elementary school on the same site would better serve all of Gloucester’s students, and may be no more costly over 20 years than replacing or renovating the current schools one at a time.

All of those, of course, are just ideas. And residents may have several more. That, indeed, is what Tuesday’s hearing is all about.

But as residents’ ideas unfold, and as one or more referenda are prepared for the November ballot, councilors, the mayor and city school officials will do well to both hear and heed what residents have to say.

These are, indeed, decisions that should truly be up to them.