There are many, many thoughtful people in this city who aren’t convinced. In fact, they are repelled by the process by which this new school project has been fast-tracked. From the start, the final outcome was preordained, the builders and architects pre-selected and any possible options kept from seeing the light.
It is obvious to anyone following the story that Dore & Whittier, the new school’s architects and builders, “own” Gloucester. They built the West Parish School and were the main candidate to build the next four schools. So wasn’t it a conflict of interest from the start to hire them to write the facilities report to examine the condition and feasibility of our existing schools instead of building new schools? Think about it: Fuller School evaluation -- Dore & Whittier. West Parish School -- Dore & Whittier. Sawyer Free Library -- Dore & Whittier. Security upgrade at O’Maley and Gloucester High School -- Dore & Whittier. New proposed consolidated East Gloucester/Veterans School -- Dore & Whittier. How much have we/will we pay out to Dore & Whittier?
They evaluated Fuller School and the neighborhood schools and declared they couldn’t be used. The school universe has declared for decades their preference for smaller neighborhood schools, the perfect size to begin their education. That was the thinking behind the abandonment of Fuller School. As an ex-mayor’s wife stated last week in a letter: “They were the perfect size to begin their school journey. Like Veterans School, it had a great teaching staff, an open green space with a playground for all, a cafeteria, and an auditorium where we proudly watched our children perform in music and stage productions. If we vote yes for the override, two neighborhoods will lose their core. (Mattos Field is a much-used green space and a community center for all ages.) Rather than renovate, these neighborhood schools will be torn down and at least $50 million will be spent on a building that looks like a factory.”
And about the process of pushing through this college-campus sized behemoth, she goes on to say: “ I attended meetings discussing the “new” school off Webster Street. I listened to neighbors of Veterans school talk about the tight access to the school and the loss of their Mattos Field. We asked about costs for renovating our neighborhood schools that have suffered from poor maintenance. We did not get figures but were told it is more expensive to renovate. Most of us live in homes we have renovated and maintained over the years. We like the scale of our neighborhoods and have witnessed the mega-mansions dwarfing neighborhoods. Big schools can be intimidating for small children. Let’s spend our tax dollars restoring our neighborhood schools and supporting our teachers.”
Was this decision “rammed through” without alternatives? Were they playing keep-away as can often happen on Gloucester decisions? Other Bay State communities have faced this choice and elected to renovate their beloved schools -- but did we ever have a choice? One local School Committee member summed it up for all of us: “Let’s be clear, I agree the Webster Street site is not the best site to put this school. Not even close. In fact, it is a poor choice at the end of a chain of poor choices that have led us to where we are today: Selecting the Webster Street site? Lack of political courage to do the right thing. Selling the Fuller property -- without knowing where we were rebuilding our remaining schools? Shameful lack of capital planning. Reconstructing West Parish without consolidating the facility with another failing school building? Wasted opportunity and taxpayer money. Closing Fuller School and spending millions of dollars on temporary modular classrooms that are already falling apart? Negligent; nearly reckless.”
The city has failed to explore any alternative locations. At the direction of the mayor’s office, the Building Committee was instructed not to explore privately owned properties. While this edict was initially a cost-savings strategy (avoiding the additional cost of purchasing property), when it became apparent that the Webster Street site came with an estimated $5 million acquisition fee (due to the need to upgrade and rent swing space to house existing students while the current school on site is demolished and the new one is built; and the need to relocate the existing softball field equipment to another location), the restriction against privately owned properties was not re-examined, the edict was not lifted, and the Building Committee moved forward with site selection without ever having thoroughly reviewed any privately-owned properties. The cited need to construct this school on protected open space was — and remains — wholly avoidable.
And are we writing Dore & Whittier a blank check? Is the upcoming override for a specific amount or a commitment to whatever it ends up costing? The prices aren’t fixed for labor or materials, are they? And what about the reports of the porous, unstable soil under the fields where half the project will sit that could jack the projected costs much higher, as did the unstable soils under Newell Stadium’s new bathrooms. A huge increase in costs. And if this one school costs a taxpayer $1,000 to $2,000 over the life of the debt service, what about the next two schools and the sewer treatment plant that must be replaced? Will they be tacked on to our tax bills also? They’ve never said how long the debt runs. All this for a falling school population. Again, there were never any other bids or options. Who runs a business like that?
So what do we get for the money? Reports say West Parish School roof has leaked from the start and has buckled the gym track underneath it. Will D&W warranty it and pay for the floor fix? No, $50 million doesn’t come with that kind of warranty, apparently. They designed it, why don’t they pay for it? Likely, neither will the next “blank check” school.
The School Committee has basically painted the city into a corner. Gosh, we have no other options, so you’ll have to do it.
Well, not so sure about that. I, for one, am not convinced. Times are tight and Gloucester just might decide to reject the blank check and the conflicts of interest for a $75 million building that looks like a factory with a possible leaking roof.
I always thought Gloucester loved its smaller schools. I still think they do. I’m voting no.
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.