, Gloucester, MA

October 24, 2012

Editorial: City residents owed full referendum on school project

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — Mayor Carolyn Kirk makes a good point when she notes that she simply doesn’t see the need for investing in Gloucester schools as something that’s optional.

And she’s absolutely right to note that, when Gloucester residents faced an embarrassing, nearly month-long boil water order from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in late-summer 2009, spending millions to address the problem and the city’s did not – and should never have – faced a referendum from city voters.

But she’s just plain wrong in trying to portray the city’s current proposal for a new West Parish School as an urgent need on the par with the city’s drinking water quality crisis (the Times, Page 1, Tuesday, Oct. 23).

For while there is a clear need to address heating problems, air quality issues and all sorts of other conditions that have gone unaddressed at that building over the last few years, there is no urgent need — and certainly no consensus — to continue forward with a building plan that, as of now, would not even hold the school’s current student enrollment, let alone open the door to the kind of consolidation that’s needed. In that vein, there is absolutely no way that such a project – tentatively pegged at a cost of some $26 million, with more than $13 million of it coming out of city coffers — should ever go forward before the mayor and other city officials get a legitimate sampling of residents’ input through, at the very least, a non-binding referendum in the months ahead.

Kirk noted that, as the project advances, residents will have a chance to speak at public hearings before the City Council, which would have to approve bonding — likely for the full cost before the city would reel in the anticipated 48 percent or greater reimbursement funding from the Massachusetts School Building Administration. And they would have a chance to speak before there is any final design approval for either a new school, or for renovating the current structure, depending on what comes out of the MSBA’s absurdly expensive $500,000 feasibility study.

Yet, as this city’s track record shows, having the chance to speak and truly be heard — the kind of input only an all-day referendum can bring — are two different things. And, while no city can truly function through constant “government by referendum,” this is precisely the kind of landmark decision that should not be made without one.

As of now, this school proposal would address only the needs of the current West Parish school population, with no potential for attracting outside school-choice students and revenue that could be realized under the projected 500-student school initially urged by even Superintendent of Schools Richard Safier.

It also makes no concession to the idea of consolidating a school district that still operates five full elementary schools despite a still-declining enrollment and outflow of choice students to other districts and the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School. And one can argue that, by ramming through a new school or significant renovation project for West Parish, city and school officials — and the MSBA, whose approved contractors must all be salivating over this – are committing to a format that will soon trigger calls for up to five new schools, assuming that parents of the students in East Gloucester, Plum Cove, Beeman and Veterans schools will see needs for new facilities in their “neighborhoods” as well.

Is that the kind of course the city should set without any referendum input from voters? Is that the kind of approach voters should expect from an administration that’s often held listening posts and presented “state of the city” updates in the past?

For all the talk about seeking public input, Kirk and other city officials have developed a reputation for giving only lip service to residents, whether at public hearings or in other settings. And pushing through a new school project without giving any full voting input to Gloucesterites only sends that dangerous message louder and clearer than ever before.

The mayor should at least reconsider the need for a referendum before fully committing the city to this project.

And if she doesn’t? The council owes to it all city taxpayers to either demand a referendum — or just say no when the bonding proposal comes down the line.