Gloucester’s City Council once again showed last week it has residents’ best interest at heart by overriding a veto by Mayor Carolyn Kirk and thus setting the stage for a non-binding referendum regarding future voters’ sentiment on the future uses of the former Fuller School.
As we’ve noted previously, while governent by referendum can be a dicey game, the impact of the ultimately chosen reuse for the Fuller site affects so many other Gloucester building use issues that it’s imperative to get a meaningful gauge on what voters want. And the best way to do that is through an all-day referendum at the polls, not through online surveys, or even through the usual round of hearings at which only those who are comfortable in speaking up publicly will do so.
But while there’s no question the planned Fuller referendum will need to be tweaked, it’s also important that the council not deprive voters of one of the initial choices. That’s the option that would allow voters to suggest that Fuller be reopened as a school facility.
The inclusion of that choice was, of course, the mayor’s chief objection to the council’s initial referendum call. And that’s because the mayor believes that reopening Fuller as a school — possibly a consolidated elementary school that could include the populations of two current elementary facilities — is simply not on the table. The School Committee, notes Kirk — who, lest we forget, serves on that panel — has already determined that a resuse of Fuller is not in the schools’ best interest. And that, she offers, is the School Committee’s call.
That may, to a large extent, be true.
But let’s remember that Gloucester’s voting citizenry has never had a real chance to chime in on what it wants to see at Fuller, just as voters have never had the chance to have a legitimate say on whether the city should pursue building a new school building in West Gloucester to simply house the current West Parish population as well. And that is a big part of the School Committee’s and mayor’s current agenda.
Look, the School Committee’s determination that Fuller is unfit for reuse as a school is largely based on educational studies and the committee’s desire to keep open all five of the current elementary, so-called neighborhood schools.
But the development and maintenance of school facilities cannot be based on educational theory alone. At some point, the interest of city taxpayers has to at least be a consideration — and there is, by most counts, at least some taxpayer interest in consolidating at least some of the city’s elementary school structure, either at an extensively renovated Fuller, or perhaps at a larger new West Gloucester school that could accommodate two of the current elementaries, not just West Parish.
The School Committee’s argument that Fuller would fall flat as a school also fails to recognize another reality: that’s the fact that, even if they do ram through construction of a new West Parish without even getting voters’ sentiment, school officials my have to house the current West Parish students at Fuller while a new school is under construction. How will officials justify that?
The fact is, any Fuller referendum would be non-binding. And it will no doubt include options for voters who believe the school be either converted into a city municipal building — with or without new Police and Fire Department headquarters on the grounds — or for those who think Fuller should be sold or leased to raise new commercial revenue.
But voters should indeed also have the chance to at least tell their councilors and elected School Committee members if, in fact, they believe Fuller can still be best used as a school.
In moving the referendum forward, councilors should not deprive voters of that choice by taking school use off the table.