, Gloucester, MA

April 18, 2013

Editorial: School chairman's call for building options was long overdue

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — When School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope called out both Councilor-at-large Bruce Tobey and the Times (See “School plan critics should show alternatives,” the Times, Tuesday, April 16), he actually reached out in a manner that the entire School Committee should have long before now.

For in asking for alternatives to city and school officials’ push for their current plan to build a new West Parish School — and not do anything to address any consolidation or restructuring of other schools to truly adapt for the district’s future needs and its still-shrinking enrollment — he may well draw viable alternatives that deserve to be openly aired, and perhaps be included on a potential non-binding November referendum that Tobey is seeking.

But while we can offer some alternatives, Pope and other city and school officials should recognize one option that should not be on the table in charting the district’s future. That’s simply maintaining the status quo alignment of five elementary buildings to feed into the increasingly successful O’Maley Innovation Middle School and Gloucester High.

The longer the district clings to that makeup, the more it’s becoming apparent that officials’ plans for a new West Parish really just lay the groundwork for having to build perhaps even five new elementary schools, replacing each of the current facilities in the years to come. That just won’t cut it with city voters or taxpayers — as it shouldn’t. And the time to “change course,” as Tobey suggested in his own My View column that appeared Wednesday, is now.

First, as we’ve noted in the past, building a new school to replace West Parish could work — if it were constructed to house enough students to allow the city school system to either attract “school-choice” students from other districts or perhaps housing all or part of another current school’s enrollment. Much to his credit, when Superintendent Richard Safier first drew up a West Parish plan for the state, it called for a building with a capacity pegged at 450-500 students.

But the Massachusetts School Building Authority responded by calling for a school that could house 355 students — fewer than the 380 or so who are crammed into West Parish now. And, not wanting to challenge the know-it-all MSBA — which, after all, controls the purse strings on Gloucester’s 48 percent funding reimbursement — the superintendent and Mayor Carolyn Kirk accepted the new figure.

That’s too bad. Because it essentially leaves Fuller as the only building that could handle an elementary consolidation — the kind that the school district needs, and should pursue.

Would fixing up Fuller be cost-effective? In a superintendent’s report of January 2012, Safier projected that it would cost an estimated $30 million to fully rehabilitate the building for future uses. And that may be the case, with the added uncertainty of state reimbursement.

But there’s no reason that facility could not house at least two or perhaps three current elementaries — in “houses” similar to three such divisions set up in one building at O’Maley. And when price matching, remember this shouldn’t be comparable to a $20-30 million new West Parish; it should be weighed against a new West Parish, plus the cost of new or significantly upgraded buildings at East Gloucester, Veterans Memorial, Beeman Memorial and Plum Cove as well.

School officials, including Pope, like to talk about how the MSBA feasibility study will indeed look at Fuller as an option.

That’s true, but don’t fall for it. The Fuller the MSBA sees today is a building that the city and School Department have deliberately allowed to fall to rot, shamefully driving out the Cape Ann Symphony, whose patrons had donated to fix up the seats in what was once the city’s best auditorium, and leaving some of their own administration employees and even pre-school students in sub-par conditions.

Indeed, one question still to be answered is what it may now take to rehab Fuller, given the school system’s deplorable but willful neglect of it.

But those factors should not mean that Fuller and a consolidation plan don’t deserve the kind of public input that school officials have seemingly feared and sought to avoid from the start.

That’s a full referendum regarding Gloucester’s school building choices that should be placed on the city’s November ballot.