So what is it that opponents of the proposed Mattos Field combo East Gloucester and Veterans school want instead?
After reading the article in last Monday’s paper, this columnist decided to call up one of the most vocal folks, Patti Amaral, and ask her what she wanted instead. She had stated in the article that not only were some on her committee related to Joseph Mattos, who died defending America -- but was aghast that the city would rip up the $240,000 of lights and improvements to the field that she had quarterbacked and fund raised with others, trample the restrictions on the original land articles, reduce the open space and recreational fields without a replacement plan — and basically turn a blind eye to the process and the conflicts within the process, such as basing the facilities report on school needs on the recommendations of Dore & Whittier, the architects who stand to gain the most from their report.
This time, she went on to amplify concerns — shared by many — of a rushed long-term process that would run up a gargantuan mountain of debt, due and payable long after city leaders were out of office. But her number one concern was about the tenor and nature of Gloucester schools themselves, namely, smaller neighborhood schools that have served as the city’s backbone for decades.
It was her feeling that the powers-that-be have painted themselves — and the city — into a corner with the idea of “super schools,” price to be determined by the architects and the Mass School Building Association. She points out many of the features of West Parish School that were over-the-top and overly complex, including the fact that they couldn’t figure out how to turn off the lights at night until recently -— in case you went by at night with the lights blazing way at all hours.
She hit me over the head with the simple fact that “Gloucester loves its current schools as a learning and social environment the way they have been.” She wanted to know and was concerned why the newspaper and the city leaders weren’t more concerned with the option of fixing the existing schools, especially with enrollment declining. While expensive to rehab, the price tag would be miles and miles lower than two more (at least) proposed mega schools with all the bells and whistles, with a final price match by the state confusingly distorted to give the impression that more will be matched when 100% of the total costs are not close to being eligible.
With the existing schools built to last decades -- couldn’t they last decades more and going the way they have been, pleasing just about everyone in town and continuing the tradition for a tenth the cost?
But, as she pointed out, it wouldn’t be a monument to the genius of the School Committee leaders, the mayor or the Council. But neither would that mountain of debt be their legacy either. Plus, with the sewer plant coming due for major expensive replacement — $50 to $100 million with no grants in sight— we’ll need a ski lift to get on top of all that debt.
So, ask Patti Amaral’s question to leaders when the override comes down the pike -- was there a cost analysis done for fixing the existing schools to the point where all concerned would be proud of them? That’s what Newburyport and Ipswich did after looking at the prices for new schools. And they are not the only ones either. And what about an option of joining with Rockport to solve mutual problems of declining enrollment. Rockport kids only make up 75% of their elementary enrollment. The rest — mostly Gloucester — are choiced in.
The word is that they want to get out of the school district business. Why not talk to each other to see if something smart can be proposed using joint infrastructure and funds?
The committees say if the override fails, they’ll just keep bringing it up until it passes. But the point is: aren’t there options that aren’t so debilitatingly expensive that could be explored? The record of the School Committee has been keeping the choices close to the vest, beginning with the destruction of Fuller School following a fixed referendum that didn’t even allow “school” as one of the choices, then trumpeting the fact that no one wanted a school there. That has ended up as the foundation for their working plans since — again, not offering any alternatives to high-priced options. Then we’re told that time is running out and there are no other options. It’s what the French restaurants call a “prix fixe,” but what we in Gloucester call government.
We need other options than Mercedes Benz, and we’ll continue to love our wonderful neighborhood schools, fixed and fabulous.
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.