Gloucester City Council President Jackie Hardy said it best.
Noting tonight’s 7 p.m. workshop session at City Hall’s Kyrouz Auditorium, Hardy conceded that, while restoring and reusing the Fuller School building and site for a school facility may not be her cup of tea, it’s an option that should at least be placed before the city’s voters in a nonbinding referendum planned for November.
Now, we can only hope her council colleagues will join her in at least letting the city’s voters — not just school officials, well-organized school parents’ groups, or even a council decision — have their say regarding whether Fuller’s future should include some type of consolidated elementary school as an alternative to building a new West Parish Elementary School that would house just one of the city’s five current so-called school “neighborhoods.”
Tonight’s meeting, which follows a pair of input public hearings, is designed to help the council finalize wording for the November ballot question that, while nonbinding, should indeed deliver some citywide consensus regarding what residents would like to see on the Fuller site. And that’s not easy.
At least one potential use, for example — that of housing the city’s Police Department, Fire Department and the Fire Department’s ambulance services — could be carried out while leaving the current Fuller building in place, according to a 2012 study by the quasi-public MassDevelopment. So it seems important that any referendum emphasize that voters choose what use they would see as their top-priority choice for the site, recognizing that more than ne use is possible.
But, with school officials seemingly in fear of a vote to reuse Fuller as a school, the most debate has been over whether that option should even be included — along with a public safety complex, a municipal office complex that could finally house the city’s government under one roof, or a choice of selling of leasing the building and/or property to commercial interests.
The answer, quite simply, is yes.
Hardy noted that, while the hearings leading up to tonight’s workshop included a number of speakers pushing to have the school option stricken from the ballot question, most of those speakers have been parents, teachers and others directly involved in the schools. Their input certainly counts, but it also hardly represents a cross-section of city voters who have every right to weigh in on this important issue at the voting booth.
Ward 1 Councilor Paul McGeary says he raise a motion to remove the school option from the ballot. He said he believes the Fuller school building is still structurally sound, but no longer “educationally sound” — and that’s fine as his opinion. That has been a big part of the party line voiced by officials pushing for a new West Parish School – along with, presumably, new or renovated elementary schools in each of the city’s other academic “neighborhoods” down the road.
But as Hardy noted, “(school parents and officials’) inkling was to say we don’t want to use the Fuller School as a school, yet there are people on the street that are urging us to leave it on there.” And they should.
It’s been striking to see that School Committee and city surveys regarding these issues have largely been focused on the “school community,” with thousands of taxpayers seemingly left out of having a direct voice in the process. And the advancement of the West Parish project — without the apparent need for a Proposition 2 1/2 override, and therefore with no mandated referendum on the project or its funding — has done the same.
This referendum would be that voice, and it would give city and school officials alike a true sense of a full cross-section of Gloucester wants.
It’s a voice, and a school choice, that city voters deserve to express for themselves. And it belongs on Gloucester’s November ballots.