A group of city officials, parents, and local builders has begun looking closely at addressing the needs of the East Gloucester and Veterans Memorial elementary schools' populations, and is poised to ask the City Council to fund a feasibility study for a new school at a cost of between $900,000 and $1 million, its chairman says.
The newly formed East Gloucester/Veterans Building Committee will begin discussing potential sites for a new elementary school that's likely to merge the enrollments of East Gloucester and Veterans at its second meeting Thursday, Oct. 19, said Jonathan Pope, who heads the city's School Committee and the new group.
But its prime focus will be to begin courting support for the feasibility study required by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which provides reimbursement to cities and towns for school projects. "That's the next step," Pope said.
The MSBA invited Gloucester last January to pursue a new school to replace East Gloucester, which dates to 1948 and opened a year before the old West Parish School, which was razed and replaced by its new, $39 million successor on Concord Street in 2016.
Pope said the committee is looking at potential school sites, including the 43-acre Swinson's Field and Pines conservation area that drew extensive opposition from residents when first raised as a school site in the summer of 2016.
"Basically, any available site that's big enough is on the table," said Pope, noting that other potential properties include the current East Gloucester and Veterans schools, city-owned property between Harrison Avenue and a corner of Blackburn Industrial Park, and city land on the edge of the city's watershed off Dory Road and extending to around Blackburn Circle. "But (choosing a site) is a long way down the road at this point. We need to talk about getting funding for the feasibility study, and we hope to have that to the council in November and done by December.
Why study is important
The city is working to get feasibility study funding before a 270-day window with the MSBA that began April 3 closes. The price tag of $900,000 or more for the study is far more than the $500,000 cost of the parallel study for the new West Parish School, but Pope said any East Gloucester project at this point is far more complex than West Parish, which now has the city's highest enrollment.
"One issue is the lack of an obvious site, and there's the idea of merging the two schools," said Kathleen Clancy, who is on the new building committee and also headed the one for the new West Parish. "For West Parish, we wanted it on the west side of town, the site was there already, the question was could it be built there. For this, there are no obvious answers.
"People may ask why so much (money) at the beginning, but this is why the feasibility phase is so important," she added. "This is where we figure out what can we do and where can we do it. Nothing's been decided; this provides us with the information to make an informed decision."
City Council President Joe Ciolino seemed surprised at the cost estimate. "The last time (for the West Parish project), it was about half that," he said.
He noted that if the city parlays the study into a building project, the city can seek MSBA reimbursement for the feasibility work as well.
"But we have to identify a funding source. Would it be from free cash? I don't know," he said. "I think we're all of the same mindset that we need new schools. But right now, I'm not sure where that money would be coming from."
The 17-member building committee was appointed by Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken and met for essentially an organizational session on Thursday. In addition to Pope, the members are Clancy from the School Committee; city Chief of Administration James Destino; John Dunn and Tom Lafleur, chief financial officers for the city and school district, respectively; city purchasing agent Donna Compton; principals Matthew Fusco of Veterans and and Amy Pasquarello of East Gloucester; two representatives from the local building industry; and three parents, two from East Gloucester and one from Veterans.
Pope said that, as the new panel and School Committee move forward, the core issue will be determining how to best provide education for the city's elementary school students in the "most cost-effective manner possible" for city taxpayers. It's in that vein that the School Committee last year supported a statement of intent — signed by the council and sent to the MSBA — that backs replacing the East Gloucester school but calls for merging it with Veterans. That would leave Beeman Memorial and Plum Cove elementary schools in position to merge down the line for a potential third large elementary school that officials last year suggested could be built on the current Beeman site.
Building at the current Veterans site would be "very tight," Pope said, while the 5.7-acre site of the current East Gloucester school, which extends down toward East Main Street, may make it difficult to find space to move the students while construction is underway. The city leased the defunct St. Ann School for 30 months at $14,000 per month from the Archdiocese of Boston to house West Parish students while their new school was being built, and spent an added $1.4 million on bringing St. Ann up to code. That lease expired and talks to extend it broke down between the city and the archdiocese in June 2016.
"There are going to be a lot of things to consider," Pope said. "But right now, we need to talk about the feasibility study, and the money for it. That's our first priority."
Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who and what: The newly-launched East Gloucester Veterans School Building Committee meets to discuss funding an estimated $900,000 to $1 million feasibility study, and potential sites for a new school.
When: Thursday, Oct. 19, at 4 p.m.
Where: Main conference room at school administration headquarters, 2 Blackburn Drive.