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April 1, 2013

Editorial: Time to put brakes on runaway school building plans

It’s all well and good that some select Gloucester city councilors and School Committee members will likely be joining Schools Superintendent Richard Safier for a road trip to visit Dedham’s new $23.3 million Avery Elementary School today.

But, while checking out the latest in both school construction and perhaps different tactics in elementary education, those same officials should keep in mind that there are many more questions to be answered before they even consider this single elementary school — which serves 211 students, far fewer than Gloucester’s West Parish — is the type that should soon rise in West Gloucester. And one of those remains the question school leaders don’t want to hear: How will a single new school, feeding into the same five-elementary building configuration that we have today, serve Gloucester’s long-term education needs when the city school district continues to lose students?

School Committee member Kathleen Clancy, who had visited the Degam school previously with Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope, certainly makes some good points when she talks of the need to either replace or significantly renovate West Parish — the oldest school in Gloucester’s system, having been built in 1948. But replacing it with another that holds only the current 380 students or fewer may not be the answer for the citywide system — or for taxpayers, who haven’t really had a meaningful say on any of this, and won’t, if the city continues on its present course.

And before school officials talk anymore about construction plans — let alone a new “access road” off Concord Street that slipped into the conversation at a recent School Committee meeting — they need to hear some full community input regarding other alternatives, including a rehabilitation of Fuller, which could play well into a needed consolidation plan.

City Councilor Bruce Tobey suggested last week that the city “park” any further advancement in this project, which seems to be reaching almost runaway status, pending further reviews. And he’s right.

The council is placing a non-binding referendum on the November ballot regarding voters’ choices for the reuse of the Fuller building. Asking voters that same day whether they support the concept of a new West Parish School that serves no other students would be a reasonable referendum as well.

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