No one should question the need to either significantly renovate or build a new school to house the students, teachers and programs that are crammed into West Parish Elementary School.
As School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope noted in his "My View" column in Saturday's Times, the idea of renovating or even replacing West Parish dates to 2002, with a new effort launched in 2009. And if there were any doubts as to West Parish's needs, they should have been obliterated last January, when the school had to shuffle students onto the stage of the auditorium and into other nooks and crannies of the nearly 65-year-old building because the school's heating system gave out.
But when the Gloucester City Council hosts a public hearing tonight to consider and perhaps decide on whether to fork over $500,000 for a "feasibility" study regarding a proposed new West Parish School, it's one it should handle with extreme care.
For the truth is, if a potential $30 million new school would simply replace West Parish — with no commitment to include at least one other current school's population in the mix — there's not really any need even for a study. Any plan to simply build a "new" West Parish — and, presumably, in the years ahead, a new Beeman, Plum Cove, East Gloucester and Veterans, without any plan to consolidate the school district — isn't necessary. Given taxpayer costs and other obligations — like the need to ensure the opening of the city's outlying fire stations — it isn't feasible, either.
Councilors and residents will likely hear tonight that the city will receive a 48 percent reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority on the overpriced $500,000 study — just as it would for a new school.
That's true, but there's a pretty big catch; the city would only get reimbursement for the study if the new school is built. So it's not a stretch to consider that any commitment by the councilors tonight will be seen as a commitment toward building a new school — perhaps to simply replace the existing one.
To some, that would be an investment in the city's school system. Again, no one can say that investing in education isn't important.
But it would also seemingly be a significant investment in the status quo of a school system whose leaders are avoiding the need to recognize that the district's needs are drastically changing. Gloucester school officials have still, for the most part, not even recognized the growing presence of a viable public, independent alternative that a growing number of families are utilizing — the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School. The charter school will head into September 2013 with a full lineup of up to 200 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Plus, the city continues to experience a net loss of students to neighboring districts under the state's school-choice option.
In that vein, building a new school on the West Parish site indeed offers a glowing chance to take a dynamic first step for Gloucester public schools. But that first step isn't simply a plan to build a single new elementary school — in the hopes of perhaps addressing the needs to replace the other four elementary schools and even O'Maley Middle School somewhere down the line.
It's the chance to study building a new school that could house the current West Parish and at least one other elementary facility — as a first step toward restructuring the school system to Gloucester's true 21st- century needs. And, if school officials won't take that step, the Gloucester City Council can and should do so tonight.
If school officials commit to exploring a new West Gloucester school that will consolidate at least two current schools into one site, that's worth a $500,000 feasibility.
Otherwise, no study is needed — especially at that price.