, Gloucester, MA

July 29, 2013

Fishtown Local: The moving game pieces at Fuller School

Fishtown Local
Gordon Baird

---- — Appearance or reality?

A Gloucester board plays in its own self-fulfilling fiefdom, moving game pieces around to suit its political machinations and ensure that its self-fulfilling promise comes true, amassing ever more game pieces in the ever-expanding school building jackpot, an ever-expanding target.

Appearance or reality? A 2012 Fuller school Reuse Presentation — commissioned by the city — endorses repurposing the Fuller School building over tearing it down because it was still so structurally sound.

Appearance or reality? Questions by critics and letters to the editor have been raised about deliberate choices within the last 20 months not to heat the building, not to remediate leaks and to otherwise refuse to provide basic building maintenance.

Our elected officials, these critics say, have taken a roughly $17 million city asset — according to the city’s assessor’s office and the Reuse Presenters — and deliberately let it slide into ruin.

Why? Appearance: to ensure the future $30 million single neighborhood school arises from the ashes of the West Parish School because it had also been let slide into disrepair?

Reality? Who the heck knows anymore. These shells are whipping around at typical shell game warp speed —now you see it, now you don’t.

Do the parents really get to decide whether the city goes into hyper-hock to re-outfit all its neighborhood schools one at a time? At perhaps $30 mil a pop? Sure, the state might eventually pay half but is that a reason to ring up an eventual $250 million to a declining elementary school population in five neighborhood schools? And who gets to make that call?

Seems a shame to get rid of what has always been seen as one of Gloucester’s best educational assets, Fuller, because of inattentive maintenance, either purposeful or through incompetence. And where were the voices of warning that the chickens of inadequate maintenance would come home to roost? Within the administration or the School Department?

Were they that asleep at the switch or was there a more pressing principle at work here? We went from business as usual to a state of “tear it down” and “it’s unsafe for any purpose.” How’d that happen so fast? A city campus, fire, police, central school, YMCA — all were possibilities and now ... nothing?

Really, folks, who’s in charge here? The folks who depend on puffing up their power base by splurging on maybe $150,000,000 of brand new, small neighborhood schools shouldn’t necessarily be the ones making the real estate calls here.

Fiscal reality will hopefully rear its ugly little head. Gloucester can’t afford five $30 million schools, period, even with state help. If they keep moving the chips around the table long enough, are they hoping the public will lose focus and just agree to just throwing money at the problem.

In Gloucester there’s been a long history of short-term solutions to this problem that have neither resulted in educational improvements or a rising school population. We’ve seen the modulars come to the city, but isn’t their shelf-life expiring soon? What happens when they are over the deadline? Do we have to replace those, too, or build separate new schools?

Eventually, both appearance and reality will have to be addressed — and not by kicking the maintenance can down the road and winning a new school by attrition.

It would be nice if leaders could think 30 or 40 years ahead and think centrally. Just providing blank checks for the new-school-toy-store is not what this school committee and city need to try to fashion a long-term solution. They need a strong dose of vision, some backbone and a good spoonful of reality.

From the outside looking in, the appearance and the reality aren’t pretty.

As a taxpayer pouring dollars in, they look downright ugly.

Gordon Baird is a local actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine, and was a member of the Board of Trustees of the former Gloucester Community Arts Charter School.