Air safety part of Gloucester schools budget

The Gloucester Teachers Association has questions about the air quality at St. Ann School, set to be temporary housing for Veterans Memorial staff and pupils while a new elementary school is built. The city has appropriated roughly $1 million toward making the space ready for staff and students.

As students return to full days of in-person learning, some residents are focused on how money in the Gloucester schools' fiscal year 2022 budget will be used to keep staff and students safe. 

The overall proposed fiscal 2022 budget tops out at $45,638,897,  a $1.25 million or 2.82% increase from the fiscal 2021 budget of $44,388,897. 

Without health insurance, Superintendent Ben Lummis noted, the proposed increase is $723,927. 

The School Committee's Building and Finance Subcommittee is scheduled to discuss an updated proposed fiscal 2022 budget at its meeting Monday.

COVID-19 concerns

A public hearing on the proposal budget was hosted Wednesday by the School Committee.  

Gloucester Teachers Association President Cynthia Carney logged in with questions about the air quality at St. Ann School, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The building, owned by the Archdiocese of Boston, will be used to temporarily house the Veterans Memorial Elementary School staff and student body while a combined elementary school building is built on Webster Street. 

“What kind of improvements are being made there as far as of health safety, because we don’t know what is going to happen in the fall,” she asked. “What kind of improvements to HVAC and air exchange and distancing are we going to provide at St. Ann's to keep our staff and students safe there?” 

Carney noted that she will file a public information request for the air exchange rate before the Veterans Memorial community enters St. Ann in the fall. 

Teachers and parents began raising concerns about air quality in school buildings last year as COVID-19 was spreading through communities. The Gloucester School District responded then that its was improving the overall air exchange in buildings through best practices and observation of equipment.

The same steps are being taken with St. Ann — and the money has already been allocated through a loan authorization. 

School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope said that as the bulk of the work scheduled to be done at St. Ann has already been determined by the designers and the archdiocese, the city has appropriated roughly $1 million toward making the space ready for staff and students.

“We are going to make sure that the students and staff who are going to be in St. Ann’s for two years are going to be safe and have a healthy environment,” Pope said. 

How COVID-19 plays as a factor in the schools in the next year was just one of multiple safety concerns residents raised Wednesday night.

Traffic and bus fees

Gloucester resident Mary Ann Boucher spoke up at the meeting to ask if the school district had budgeted for a police officer to mitigate the traffic problems at West Parish and potential traffic problems at the new school on Webster Street. 

Having seen cars pile up during drop-off and pickup at West Parish, Boucher referenced a previous meeting where Pope had noted that there were 57 West Parish pupils entitled to but not using free busing. 

“You can’t force parents to put their child on a bus, from what I understand,” she said. “It is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.” 

Pope noted that the new school will not be open for a few more years, which means that its costs will be addressed in the fiscal year 2024 budget.

“Certainly, we try to look forward as much as we can,” Pope said. “But we only do budgets one year at a time.”

Later on in the meeting, School Committee member Melissa Joy Teixeira Prince wondered about eliminating student transportation fees altogether. 

“What would it look like to potentially waive the bus fees for all students?” she asked. “I think this is a conversation I am hoping we can have before this budget season is over.”

Transportation director Adam Mayo is expected to talk about the bus fee at Monday's meeting.

Plan for a 'normal' year

Not all of the public comments were concerns, however, as some expressed gratitude for how money is being allocated to serve all students.  

Heidi Wakeman expressed her appreciation for the budget's focus on teachers of English language learners. 

"Thank you for protecting some of the most vulnerable people in our community," Wakeman said. "It is a social justice issue and I want Gloucester to stand for social justice and equality."

Lummis emphasized the fact that district is budgeting for a “normal” year, as it “allows us to identify the top priorities for student learning, support, and instruction that we want to continue next year and beyond without getting sidetracked by the many possible tradeoffs of additional costs we will need to consider.”

With this in mind, the proposed fiscal 2022 budget prioritizes targeted academic support and intervention, collaborative assessment of student learning, strengthening core instruction and professional practice, expanding English language learner services and support, social-emotional health, maintaining recent investments in technology, and maintaining building equipment and infrastructure.  

“This is not the year to be too ambitious in what we change, add or request,” Lummis noted. “A balanced approach to increases and reductions is essential.”

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@gloucestertimes.com.

HOW TO WATCH

What: A discussion on the updated proposed fiscal 2022 budget for the schools and school transportation by School Committee's Building and Finance Subcommittee.

When: Monday, April 12, at 5 p.m.

Where: Zoom meeting accessible on smart devices at https://gloucester-ma-gov.zoom.us/j/89049853499, or by telephone, 1-312-626-6799 or 1-929-205-6099. Meeting ID is 890 4985 3499

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