City and school administrators Wednesday took their first, preliminary step toward constructing a new school in West Gloucester.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Superintendent of Schools Richard Safier sent a letter to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, asking the agency to take a first look at the potential Gloucester project at its next meeting on Jan. 25.
If the authority agrees there's a need — and if the preliminary proposal seems viable — members will vote to invite Gloucester into a pre-project eligibility period.
The West Gloucester project could have been eligible last year, but the city decided not to pursue it, choosing instead to repair the roofs on O'Maley Middle School and the elementary schools, except for West Parish.
The eligibility period lasts for 270 days, and gives the city time to pull together some preliminary paperwork about its fiscal state and school maintenance policies, Kirk said.
Kirk said that paperwork will factor into the authority's decision regarding whether to fund the project. If the authority votes to move Gloucester's project into the eligibility slot, it would then consider the project — but moving into that period, said Kirk, doesn't guarantee a final approval.
In that period, the city will work with the authority on a feasibility study. Though Kirk projected the study would cost about $500,000, she said the city will have to put the study out for bid. And until it works through what the study could entail with the authority, she said, the numbers are speculation.
"As soon as we get into the eligibility period, we'll start working with the MSBA on how to cost this out," she said.
The feasibility study, she said, will encompass more than just what's wrong with West Parish — which found three classrooms without heat on Wednesday (see related story).
It will also look at the city's other options for education, as well as put forward some rough construction plans. As for what the new school will cost to build, Kirk said that will depend on the feasibility study. If the authority takes the project after all of that, it could reimburse the city for nearly half the cost.
This isn't the first time the city's looked at building a new school on the West Parish property.
In 2009, the city submitted statements of intent to the School Building Authority for repairs to city school buildings, and listed the school as a top priority for a litany of reasons. At that time, the city and School Committee stated that the school's roof needed replacing and the fire alarm system needed fixing, as did the heating system and electrical systems, among other issues.
The city backed off the project, states Kirk in her letter to the authority, for a few reasons.
She said the city didn't want to pursue it with its shaky fiscal state. She added that the city was also loathe to start the project without a permanent superintendent, either. At the time, Joseph Connelly was serving a one-year stint as interim superintendent after the departures of seven-year schools chief Christopher Farmer. Safier took over as permanent superintendent last June.
Lastly, the mayor wrote, the city chose to fix the roofs on several school buildings before rebuilding West Parish. The authority put forward half of that estimated $5.5 million project.
Some of the problems the school has, said Groleau, who heads the PTO as a parent of a West Parish third grader, haven't gotten much better.
While the roof has been patched and doesn't leak as much, she said, the school still has persistent problems with its heat and internal air quality, and there is a stress fracture in the cafeteria ceiling, she said.
But the school's largest problem, she said, is that it's simply not big enough to handle the 380 students and 70 staffers who squeeze into it.
"That school is maxed out," she said. "There's something in every corner."
The school also wasn't built for modern educational standards, and doesn't incorporate space for specialists or special education, Groleau said.
The school has made that space, she said, but it's tight, and doesn't have space for any extra programs that come to the school.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.