GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 11, 2013

The Mayor's Desk: Progress report due on West Parish

The Mayor's Desk
Carolyn Kirk

---- — This Tuesday evening at City Council, there will be a progress report presented on the feasibility study currently underway regarding the renovation or rebuilding of the West Parish Elementary School.

The City Council voted unanimously last year to fund the feasibility study, and the city has retained the services of the architectural firm Dore & Whittier. The city is also working hand in hand with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) during this process, which is a requirement since the MSBA is funding almost half of the $500,000 study.

The feasibility study requires a careful review of all the alternatives for addressing the condition of the West Parish school, including an analysis of the Fuller building.

This Tuesday marks the first time the community will hear from experts about the condition of and possibilities for this capital planning effort. It will be the first time the community will be presented with some facts and an independent assessment of both buildings rather than the emotional and uninformed opinions that are often put forward.

As we head into Tuesday’s meeting and the future of our elementary schools, it might be helpful to step back and remind ourselves of how we have gotten to this point.

In 10 short years, enrollment in the Gloucester Public Schools has declined by 25 percent. This translates into a total loss of over 1,000 students.

The School Committee, back in the mid-2000s, confronted the dual challenge of serious budget cuts and declining enrollment, and began the painful process of addressing the need to downsize the elementary school educational program.

After a research-driven process with input from the community over a two-year period, the School Committee made the decision to close the Fuller Elementary School and redistrict over 400 children to other schools. The School Committee then and today holds firmly to the value of an elementary education program that is organized as kindergarten through fifth grade, with no more than two or three classes per grade in each building. This is the configuration we have today.

The decision to close Fuller triggered two things: The first was the need to establish a capital plan for the elementary school buildings.

West Parish was determined to be — and the MSBA concurred — the building in most need of investment. As a result, we are in the midst of the feasibility study for determining best options for moving forward. We are also looking to undertake a 20-year capital plan for addressing the other buildings as well.

The second thing that was triggered by the decision to close Fuller as an elementary school is the need for disposition of the building. It has been five years since an elementary school student attended a class there, and the time is long overdue for eliminating the extraordinary expense of operating the building when it is only 10 percent occupied.

Redevelopment of the Fuller building and property, now that the School Committee has declared it surplus, will and has generated much discussion in the community — as it should.

If you can, please come to the City Council meeting at City Hall on this Tuesday night, May 14, 7 p.m., and hear first-hand about the progress on the feasibility study for addressing the condition of the West Parish Elementary School.

Carolyn A. Kirk is mayor of the city of Gloucester.