A distraught Patti Amaral called me up one recent morning: “Gordo, Gordo . . . you gotta do something. I don’t know where to turn so I’m calling you.” It was this school thing, where it’s going to go. She is adamantly opposed to putting the “new” school on Mattos Field that she and her supporters raised more than $200,000 to refurbish and erect lights. But it’s more than that.
“Does anybody realize that every time the city leaves a school, it becomes condos? Hovey School, Maplewood School, the Para Tresearch Building, Central Grammar and now Fuller. We’re going backward.” Her point was also that the city just doesn’t have the money to pay for our share of four new schools. The West Parish School is spec’d to last 50 years and at $50 million, that’s a million a year to pay for one elementary school. Is that a good deal? Her point is also to renovate both East Gloucester School and Veterans where they are located now at probably $5 million to $10 million would be a way better deal. The city is getting less than half the cost reimbursed for the new schools.
“The sewer treatment plant is also going to have to be replaced -- which is huge money — more than a school, even twice as much! How are we going to afford all of that? We’re gonna go broke! What if the plant is $100 million?”
Part of the problem is that the other neighborhoods want their turn at a nice, gleaming new school. The ball got started rolling and now other parents want that for their kids’ school too. The School Committee hasn’t exactly been dampening expectations either. The architects will install every bell and whistle as they did on West Parish. They are determining what the city will be paying off for years, not the body politic.
Now, turning back the clock. What if Fuller School had that $5 million to $10 million put in to rehab 10 years ago when it could still have been saved. The city conducted a very concocted public survey about what to do with Fuller. But “school” was not a choice offered on the list, so, of course, it didn’t score very high. We were told that if people wanted a school there, they could “write it in” as an alternative. Of course, no one did -- it wasn’t one of the listed choices. So they announced the citizens didn’t want a school there.
What a sell job they did, ensuring that Fuller would go by the boards and the city could pursue five new schools. Now, it’s been sold off cheap to condo developers whose partners didn’t finish the first project they began at the mall. They promised the moon but came up short on the assisted living project and the hotel but somehow wangled the TIFs anyway. They’ll make the millions in profit from our asset, while we spend many times that amount replacing it.
So what do we think might happen to East Gloucester and/or Veterans after the schools are vacated? Will they just sit idle, decaying in place until condo developers can buy them at bargain basement rates and “bail out’ the city, as they are doing up at Fuller. Fuller was built to last way more than 50 years but that was predicated on keeping up with the maintenance, obviously. That’s a pretty good way to achieve your political aims: just let the alternative rot in place, throw it away and buy a new one.
If our share of four new schools is $30 million each, plus a new sewer plant, that could add $220 million to our tax burden. That’s a lotta cake to bake and we’re not the U.S. government that can run up deficits forever. If the driving force for four brand new schools is that West Parish already got theirs, the time might have passed for that argument. Neighborhood schools are a wonderful asset to have but it’s not the only consideration. Parents said they favored it but is that any more set in stone than the goals of the Community Plan 2000 that citizens supported, which the city seems to be undoing today?
As Patti Amaral’s statement at a City Council hearing below states, this is her primary issue. Mine is the ridiculous amounts of money Gloucester must borrow to float this objective that might be better accomplished by renovation at their current locations.
Amaral: “Mattos field, East Gloucester school area, and Green Street all have the same thing in common: They are all open space and should be protected and preserved for future generations. Our Community Plan 2000 reminds us over and over again the importance of our open spaces and the places we hold dear. The plan was “citizen-driven” and reached out to residents from all corners of our city.
Since that plan, we are again reminded of our need and love for open space with our Open Space and Recreation Plan, a plan I was fortunate to be able to be a part of. This plan listed and inventoried all of our open spaces – from our beautiful beaches to our ball fields and parks, to our cemeteries and even our boat landings. Birds. Plants. All find a place in this plan. We talk about how we can protect these places and how we can improve them, but never did we talk about taking them away. Preserve, maintain and protect. These are the three words we should be using when it comes to our open spaces. Because once they’re gone we can’t get them back.”
Clearly Gloucester should avoid being rushed into a one-sided solution we can ill afford. It’s the easier solution, sure, but a bunch of these elected folks will be long gone by the time the bills come due.
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.